With winter on the horizon, I thought it would be a good time to jump into a topic that many of us struggle with during the cloudier months. After I moved from California to Montreal for University, I noticed something change within me. I felt a sense of heaviness and grogginess during the winter and sometimes autumn months. I figured it was just due to the fact that those carefree summer days were no more and it was back to business as usual. But then I realized something. I would feel much more cheerful and energetic on days when the sun was out and quite the opposite on days when it wasn’t (which was the majority of days in Montreal). So I googled:Why is my mood down in winter?
With winter on the horizon, I thought it would be a good time to jump into a topic that many of us struggle with during the cloudier months. After I moved from California to Montreal for University, I noticed something change within me. I felt a sense of heaviness and grogginess during the winter and sometimes autumn months. I figured it was just due to the fact that those carefree summer days were no more and it was back to business as usual. But then I realized something. I would feel much more cheerful and energetic on days when the sun was out and quite the opposite on days when it wasn’t (which was the majority of days in Montreal). So I googled:
Why is my mood down in winter?
Turns out a lot of people experience this. I guess I had never noticed it since California winters are not as extreme as Montreal winters. It is suggested that anywhere from 14–20% of American adults experience seasonal mood changes (This is not to be confused with clinical seasonal depression which about 1–9% of Americans are diagnosed with).
The “Winter Blues”, as it is sometimes referred to, can arise anytime from crisp October to rainy April (on the Northern hemisphere that is). Its cause is estimated to be disruptions in our body's internal clocks. Winter translates to shorter days and longer nights, meaning less sunlight. Less sunlight affects the circadian rhythm, which is the body’s biological clock that governs certain brain wave activity and hormone production.
The changing season disrupts the body’s levels of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood. Hence the feeling of grogginess I was feeling.
Aha, so there was a scientific explanation. But how do I treat it? It largely depends on how much the weather and seasons affect you. If you experience symptoms of depression, then this article is not for you and I suggest you consult with your doctor. However, if you are like me and simply notice small changes in your mood, then keep reading. I have scoured the web to find the best and most useful tips for people battling the winter blues. Here is my comprehensive list:
Doctor Jacqueline Gollan, Ph.D., says that getting at least 20 minutes of vigorous activity four times a week has been shown to reduce depressive mood. When I read that exercise helped, I thought to myself “Seriously?! Does exercise have to be a cure for everything??!”. If your reaction is like mine, you may have the wrong relationship with exercise. Exercise isn’t supposed to be something that makes you sigh (or gag). It can and should be enjoyable.
The problem is that most people associate exercise with running or weight lifting. But, there are thousands of different types of exercise out there. Just go to your local gym and ask for their exercise class brochure. I guarantee you will find one type of exercise that you genuinely enjoy doing, whether it be goat yoga or cycle karaoke. In the winter months, it's super important to find reasons to get out of bed on those snowy days (and I can guarantee that a workout you hate isn’t going to get you out of those soft linen sheets).
We all tend to spend more time indoors during the winter and autumn months (especially now with the pandemic), so why not work on improving our indoor spaces? The winter months are the perfect time to give your house a makeover or organize. Let’s call it Winter cleaning!
Also, opt to make your space brighter whether that means pushing back those curtains, replacing that broken bulb, fixing that fireplace you’ve never used, or purchasing candles. I’ve found that creating light inside when there isn’t much outside can drastically improve my mood (although my friends always make fun of me for having so many string lights in my room).
Some people purchase what is known as a light therapy lamp. It is essentially a lamp that you sit in front of for about 20 minutes a day that exerts a bright blue light. Research has shown that between 50–80% of people who get the winter blues can get either partial or complete relief from bright light therapy.
What also helps to improve your space is plants and lots of them! Many studies have shown that plants have many therapeutic benefits. They are also beautiful to look at. I have never been a plant person (in fact I used to buy those fake cacti from Ikea), but just recently started picking up pretty plants when I came across them. I now have a small forest in my bedroom and every time I look at them, it sparks joy. The plants combined with the many light sources in my room gives the illusion that I am outside.
Miriam Kirmayer, a therapist and friendship expert said “When it gets cold out, it’s easy to ‘cocoon ourselves’ at home and it can also be difficult to drag friends out of their respective cocoons, but friendships are essential for our health and well-being”. Just because it is raining or snowing outside, doesn’t mean you need to snuggle up into bed and watch your favorite Netflix series. Well, sometimes this is nice to do, but the point is that the weather shouldn’t affect you making plans or not. If you are in the mood to socialize, then plan something! Of course, COVID-19 complicates things a bit, but if you have roommates, a significant other, or family that you are quarantining with, plan a little night in!
Make an event of it. When I was little I used to plan movie nights for my family where I would make movie tickets, set up a fort with plenty of blankets and pillows, and create an assortment of candies and popcorn. Planning for the movie night turned out to be just as fun as the movie night itself!
While doing my research for this article I came across this concept I had never heard of before: hygge (pronounced hoo-ga). The Scandanavian nations endure some of the longest and bleakest winters on the planet, yet consistently rank as some of the happiest nations in the world. Why is this? A contributing factor to this could be hygge.
Hygge is loosely translated as coziness or the art of creating a warm atmosphere in the cold and cloudy months. The word comes from the Danish who embrace winter as a time to slow down, enjoy being home, and spend time inside with friends and family.
One of the most important aspects of hygge? Candles. Danes burn a whopping 13 pounds of candle wax a year per capita according to Wiking — more than any other country in the world. Furthermore, throw blankets, fireplaces, comfort food, and hot drinks also play significant roles in the creation of hygge.
Food and vitamins can have a huge impact on your mood. Eating complex carbohydrates such as spinach, broccoli, zucchini, and lentils take longer to digest, meaning they don’t cause the sudden spikes in blood sugar that can play havoc with your mood.
Most of the Vitamin D that we take in comes from sunlight, so naturally, we lack Vitamin D in the winter. One study found that when adults with the winter blues were given 400–800 international unis of vitamin D3 in a day, their mood improved substantially. Similarly, fish oil can help. Iceland is one of the northernmost countries, but experience very low levels of winter blues. One reason for this is thought to be their high level of fish consumption, which are extremely high in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, known to have antidepressant effects.
There’s a lot out there on how to manage the winter blues. I’ve listed a few that have helped me as well as others that I have read helped other people. I suggest you try these and see which ones work for you. It’s important to remember that it’s not just in your head — people do experience feelings of sadness during the winter months, but there are simple cures.
The winter blues also sits on a spectrum, so there are people that are more affected by it than others. I am certainly no doctor and am only sharing from personal experience as well as research I have done, so if you find yourself on the far end of the spectrum, I suggest you reach out for help. While the sun may be hiding behind those clouds, winter brings many joys as well — good food, family time, holidays, gratitude, and laughter. Let’s embrace the joyful moments.
Want an app that counts your movements for you? Check out PlayFitt, the movement app that can track your squats, pushups, stairs, steps, and more! Who knew living a healthier life and building sustainable habits could be so fun?