How to boost your mood and beat the winter blues

Allison Mirell-Heaton
Allison Mirell-Heaton
January 7, 2022

It's actually quite normal for energy levels and moods to take a hit in the winter. Some people experience a severe dip in mood, some may even develop depression. This can be a form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). 

It gets dark much earlier in the day after daylight savings, which can cause our brains to produce more of a sleep-related hormone called melatonin. This is thought to contribute to depressive episodes in winter months.

According to Andrea Rogers, Supervisor for Intensive Outpatient Programs in the Department of Psychiatry at Cedars Sinai, the change in seasons and reduced sunlight can cause a shift in our internal biological clocks, or circadian rhythm. 

So what's a person to do? The short answer is exercise, diet, sleep, stress management and social support. Here's a short list of mood boosting and well being activities that are sure to help!

1. Exercise
Aerobic exercise especially helps release feel-good chemicals that not only help you energize, but also create a mood boost in most people. Already feeling so fatigued from depression you can't fathom a 30-60 minute sweat session? Download a five or seven minute workout app and build up the time in increments. Set a very realistic goal for yourself and increase as you can after a week or two. Your mood will benefit and you will be proud of yourself for doing so. Ready to change up your environment but hate the gym and exercising in the cold? Try a mall walk or a walk around the Pepsico track with a friend (or by yourself with an inspiring podcast to distract unhelpful thoughts).

2. Eat well 
Increase the "real food" in your diet and limit refined sugar. (To be clear, restricting or banning food has no place in your quest for wellness.) You can go for that candy cane or oatmeal cookie, but make sure you're also getting your fruits, vegetables and protein. According to an article from MedicalNewsToday, people with moderate-to-severe depression saw improved symptoms when they received nutritional counseling sessions and ate a more healthful diet for 12 weeks. Here’s a link to a more in depth article on the food and mood/gut and brain connection. 

3. Get enough sleep
Make sure you're sleeping enough (7-9 hours to help you learn and retain information), but also try to limit it to nighttime hours. Avoid alcohol as a way to fall asleep at night. It affects your quality of sleep (prevents you from achieving enough deep sleep) and negatively impacts depression.

Many people with depression (SAD or not) and anxiety already struggle with sleep, but did you know that there's scientific evidence that too much screen time during the day and before bed can cause sleep problems or exacerbate existing issues?

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that you turn off your screens one hour prior to when you'd like to go to sleep.
If you can't kick the habit cold turkey, you can do "good enough" and follow this tip from the Mayo Clinic: keep the screen at least 14 inches away from your face and dim the light as much as possible.  This can help reduce the negative impact of blue light frequency, which can influence your brain's release of melatonin. So while you might have to put down your phone an hour prior to bedtime you might be able to turn on a guided relaxation exercise on your laptop and wear blue light glasses.  Check out mindfulness meditations through TAO, or guided relaxation exercises through Insight Timer, or
4. Manage stress
You're not helpless against it, but you do have to actively manage it. Don't overbook yourself. Try to balance time by yourself and with others. You may need to schedule this instead of just going with the flow.

Activities can include intentionally setting aside a few minutes (or more) to engage in coloring for fun, listening to upbeat/positive music, journaling, stretching and focusing on just being in the moment and listening to your breath. Another good idea is to try regular guided relaxation or mindfulness. Headspace and Calm are two apps that can help, just to name a few.

5. Social support
Last but not least, humans are social creatures. We're meant to be in community with others. We give support and friendship to others so please remember that you, too, are deserving of care and support. 

Sometimes we need to talk to get support and perspective. It can help to have others challenge our negative thoughts when we have trouble doing that for ourselves. It might help you to see that you're not alone. Consider opening up to a friend, religious leader, family member or therapist. 

Not ready to open up quite yet? Then spend some time with others to remind yourself that you're part of a greater whole and that others do want to be with you. Schedule time with non demanding friends to have something to look forward to and/or to make sure you don’t fall too deep into self isolation tendencies. You can schedule game night with friends, cook a meal with them, or see if they would like to go to a guided meditation with you. Every Tuesday at 4pm a professional from Augustana leads guided meditation in Lindberg’s guided meditation room (second floor room with the stained glass wall)*. 

*Guided meditation on campus is on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stay tuned for more information! 

Living off campus during J-term or a commuter student? Watch a movie with a family member and make snacks together beforehand. Help an elderly neighbor with a task or chore and ask them about how they've tolerated winter all these years!

Know that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) may not necessarily be your fate, but even if it is there's a lot you can do to relieve the symptoms. If you feel your depression lingers despite all the aforementioned suggestions, you could benefit from consulting a doctor to see if you have developed SAD and if medications and/or light therapy may work for you. Some people manage their seasonal affective disorder very well with a combination of light therapy and healthy behavioral changes.
I hope this blog has helped you to find a few new ideas to help you not only cope, but perhaps even thrive, during this year’s winter months. Remember, it is always darkest before the dawn and, we are all in this together. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your Augustana Community (including our friendly mental health counselors!) for support and encouragement.

Allison Mirell-Heaton
Allison Mirell-Heaton
Student Counselor