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Weathering Winter's Darker Days

March 9, 2021

The calendar shows we’re in the homestretch. But for those dealing with seasonal depression and winter blues, these final weeks of the season may be difficult.   

A woman looks out the window on a dark, rainy day.

“A lot of people aren’t feeling like their best selves these days,” says Peter Bolo, MD, interim medical director for Atlantic Behavioral Health, and the resiliency advocate for Atlantic Health System. Most people are experiencing some degree of pandemic fatigue, and many are dealing with a post-holiday letdown. For others, these feelings are compounded by the “winter blues” – a sense of low energy or melancholy that occurs as the lowlight days of winter stretch on. 

“This is an aspect of living in northern climates,” says Dr. Bolo. “The farther north you go, the more seasonal depression you see.” This has nothing to do with temperature, Dr. Bolo points out; rather, it is related to how much natural light hits one’s eye throughout the day. 

Winter blues are fairly common; the symptoms are typically mild and ebb as we head into spring. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), however, is a medical diagnosis distinguished by such symptoms as changes in eating and sleeping habits, difficulty maintaining relationships, or even feelings of apathy toward existence. 

“These symptoms are the same as those for any major clinical depression, but they present seasonally,” says Dr. Bolo. In these cases, antidepressants and psychotherapy may be necessary.

Combat or Cope with Seasonal Depression

Dr. Bolo offers these suggestions:

  • Brave the elements and head outdoors. As little as 30 to 60 minutes of daylight can have a positive effect on someone with winter blues. But shelve your sunglasses; it’s the light source hitting the retina that signals the brain and affects mood. 
  • While you’re outside, take a walk. It’s a natural mood elevator. 
  • Consider light therapy. The bulbs in your home will not do the trick, but a 10,000-lux full-spectrum light mimics the mood-enhancing effects of sunlight and, therefore, can improve circadian rhythm. 
  • If you need more help, do not hesitate to reach out to your physician or a therapist.