By Kristina Schwalm-Bacquet, MSW, RSW
Here we are. At the beginning of February and thus, embarking on the famous February blahs. That time of the year when many of us have slowly and unwittingly become a creature of the shadows. We lurk mainly indoors, hibernating as much as possible and socializing rarely. A lot of us feel despondent, uninspired, uninterested and generally low this time of year.
Clinically, we know that the winter months can have a very real impact on mood, often provoking depressive symptoms. When diagnosed, this is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and it effects about 2-5% of the population. In its less extreme form, it’s been dubbed “the winter blues”. Though it’s name is unofficial, it should be taken seriously, as the emotional and psychological impacts of these stark winter months will likely recur, and can increase over time.
While the causes of SAD and winter blues are still largely unclear, researchers have linked symptoms to genetics, upset of circadian rhythm, (our internal body clock), serotonin or melatonin limitations during winter months with lack of natural sunlight.
Here are some tips for coping effectively with winter blues:
1. Don’t ignore your symptoms
The very first step to recovery is actually acknowledging that you are struggling, instead of avoiding or trying to push through your difficulty. This is doubly difficult when your mood is low, as depressive symptoms make us more likely to self-blame, self-criticize and feel shameful.
Keep this in mind when you’re looking for symptoms of:
- increased sadness or crying
- sleep changes
- appetite changes
- disinterest in usual activities
- guilt and shame
- pessimism about the future (even short-term concerns about the day, week or month)
2. Create a list of pleasurable activities and set them in your schedule
Pleasurable activities should be things that feel exactly that, pleasurable, not tasks or jobs. Try hard to fight the urge to chastise yourself for not starting with your mail or taxes. It is important to remember that even pleasurable tasks might feel undesirable given your mood, so the most enticing activities are priority now before tackling chores or practical tasks. A great idea is to grab a piece of paper and divide it into four sections: intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual*. Now consider things you like to do that fit into these four sections.
The two most important things to keep in mind here are:
- The activities should be things you know you really like, or have liked in the past, even if they don’t interest you much right now.
- To start small. Even 10-20 minutes a day is a great start and you can increase each week as you see fit. The important thing is that you keep it up, not that you go in full throttle.
3. Re-set a healthy rhythm, including healthy eating, exercise and a healthy sleep routine
If you’ve always wanted to consult a nutritionist, personal trainer a sleep clinic or CBT therapist for insomnia, now is the perfect time. If you can recognize that managing the symptoms of your low mood is priority, remind yourself of this when sneaky thoughts attempt to rationalize putting work, social obligations, numbing activities (TV, video games, snacking) ahead of your tried and true healthy lifestyle practices. Try your best to get outside as much as you can, and hopefully soak up some natural light wherever possible.
4. Pay attention to your thoughts
This might very well be the trickiest step that might require some outside support from a CBT therapist. The patterns of thought that come on during an onset of a low mood or depression are harmful and will increase the more freedom they are given to run rampant. We want to catch your thoughts, and the earlier the better. Watch for thoughts that are self-critical, pessimistic, hopeless and/or helpless. Keep a running log throughout the day and write them down as you notice them, along with the event that provoked them.
At the end of the day, read over your list of thoughts and events that you’ve tracked and ask yourself, was this thought 100% accurate or rational? Was it more extreme than the event required?, Would I say this to a friend in the same situation? and Is it helpful? i.e. Did it help to motivate me for greater success or a better future, or did it zap my energy and make both of those things less likely?
Being aware that your self-critical and pessimistic thoughts are misguided, magnified and unhelpful can help you begin to give them less influence when they pop up again the next time. But they are sneaky, so keep watching for them, and be ready to challenge them as they arise. With perseverance, you can begin to deter them and keep your mood more stable.
5. Focus on taking action
Make a slow and gradual plan involving the steps above in the order they are presented. Pay close attention to what happens when you try to follow your plan. The first time you don’t stick to it, acknowledge it, and with self-compassion and non-judgement truly try to figure out why.
Ask yourself, what thoughts or behaviours got in the way of you completing this task? Was I starting with too much? Would it be easier to form new habits by easing into them, instead of overwhelming my already tapped out system?
Remember that blaming and chastising yourself for not following through is a sure-fire way to ensure you give up on your plan and make you never want to make a plan again. Many people struggle to make plans in the first place because they know the self-criticism and shame that comes when/if they don’t follow through. But, if you approach this with an air of self-compassion and curiosity, you will likely get much much further.
If you are finding any of these practices too difficult, or don’t notice a shift in mood from this alone, it is probably time to seek professional support. Since the winter blues and SAD symptoms will likely arise every time the weather takes a dip, these tools will be reusable, your competence with them will improve over time, and eventually, you will naturally and easily nip symptoms in the bud.
The most recommended treatments for SAD and winter blues are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, medications and supplements and light therapy. Talk to your M.D or N.D to determine which treatment might be best for you.
I maintain a regular mental health blog on the darouwellness.com site, so check back in for more on coping with anxiety, depression, insomnia, emotional difficulties, trauma and general coping and mental wellness.
Kristina Schwalm-Bacquet is a Mental Health Therapist, Supervisor and Instructor.
- Kurlansik, S.L. & Ibay, A.D., (2013). Seasonal Affective Disorder. Indian Journal of Clinical Practice, 24(7): 607-610.
- Lam, RW & Levitan, RD (2000). Pathophysiology of seasonal affective disorder: a review. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, 25(5): 469–480.
Rohan, K., Lindsey, K. T., Roecklein, K. A., Lacy, T. J. (2004). Cognitive-behavioral therapy, light therapy, and their combination in treating seasonal affective disorder. Journal of Affective Disorders, 80(2-3): 273-283.
- Sher, L., Goldman, D., Ozaki, N., & Rosenthal, N. (1999). The role of genetic factors in the etiology of seasonal affective disorder and seasonality. Journal of Affective Disorders, 53(3): 203-310.