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Winter—and its associated darkness—is coming. Next Sunday, November 6, we’ll turn our clocks back an hour to mark the end of daylight saving time. That evening, the sun will set in Denver at 4:52 p.m., and daylight will keep diminishing until the winter solstice on December 21.
For some people, the impending season will bring on mental health challenges. And there’s a physiological reason why.
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The lessened daylight in winter months can impact your circadian rhythm as well as your levels of serotonin (a brain chemical that affects mood), melatonin (a hormone related to sleep and mood), and vitamin D, says Dan Schoenwald, Ph.D., clinical psychologist in Denver Health’s Outpatient Behavioral Health department. It’s not fully understood yet how all these factors combine to impact mood, but researchers do know there is a link, Schoenwald explains.
Moreover, “winter can be an isolating period in which our exercise schedules are reduced, our connection to nature is reduced, our connection to other people changes,” says licensed clinical psychologist Justin Ross, Ph.D., director for workplace wellbeing at UCHealth. The severity of winter-induced mental health challenges varies, but Ross speculates that nearly everyone experiences at least one short period of season-related moodiness this time of year. “For me personally, if we get three or four cold, gloomy gray days in a row, I start to notice it,” he says.
Now, feeling a little down in the cold months is different from having seasonal affective disorder (SAD), Schoenwald says. SAD is a mental health condition affecting up to 10 percent of the population in the U.S., depending on geographic location. With SAD, which is formally diagnosed as “major depressive disorder recurrent with seasonal pattern,” people experience major depressive episodes related to seasonal changes, most often in the fall and winter, Schoenwald says. The condition dissipates when the seasons shift again, but it can severely impact functioning and make it difficult for people to work, maintain relationships, and enjoy their usual activities. If you suspect you have SAD (you can learn more about it here), contact a mental health professional; they may prescribe therapy, medications, or other treatments, like a light box.
Whether or not you have SAD, there are small things you can do to improve your mental health this winter. Below, we rounded up 10 expert-approved tips. They may not be cure-alls, but they can make a difference in how you feel.
Exercise can be a powerful mood booster. Case in point: A 2019 study published in Depression and Anxiety found that exercising in any form for three hours a week may lower risk of depression. Aim for 30 minutes a day, suggests Ross. If you can’t carve out a full half hour, strive for smaller chunks—a 10-minute walk here, a quick yoga sequence there. Every bit counts.
Adjust Your Schedule
Consider reorienting your schedule so that you get more exposure to direct sunlight. This doesn’t have to involve a major calendar overhaul. Little tweaks can make a difference, like spending half of your lunch break outside instead of at your desk, or walking your dog before work when it’s light out instead of after.
Alter Your Self-Talk
Instead of telling yourself “I hate winter” and “winter sucks,” try something less negative, like “I prefer the other seasons more.” This isn’t just psychological semantics: Your internal dialogue does affect the way you feel, Schoenwald says. Use that connection to your advantage by filtering your thoughts through a slightly sunnier lens.
Take on a New Challenge
Learning something new—like quilting, baking bread, or speaking Spanish—can stimulate your brain and force it to work in a novel way. That, in turn, can help boost your energy levels, explains Schoenwald, who began learning photography at age 42. “This gives me a reason to be outside even in the freezing temperatures; sometimes at night, chasing the stars,” he says.
Set Micro Goals
Actively engaging in rewarding activities like yoga, playing an instrument, or creating art can be effective for combating depression, Schoenwald says. To stay consistent with these habits and monitor your progress, he advises creating a schedule with easily attainable goals. Aim for two to three goals a day and check them off when complete. “You can even rate your mood after a task,” he says.
Research shows that exposure to any amount of nature, no matter the season, can be an effective mood booster, Schoenwald says. He references the Japanese term “forest bathing”—essentially, the idea that being outside can nourish the soul. So when your schedule allows, “get out into nature as much as you can,” he advises. Bundle up and walk to the closest park, drive to a scenic mountain vista, or strap on your snowshoes and hit your favorite trail.
Document the Positives
Get in the habit of jotting down three good things that happen every day. They can be small things, Schoenwald says. Think: Someone let me merge in traffic; I enjoyed my lunch; I saw a nice sunset. Consistently documenting these wins can build more of an optimistic mindset, he explains.
Engage in Meaningful Activities
It’s easy to cancel plans when it’s cold and dreary. As best you can, though, Ross suggests staying involved with things that connect you to community and bring purpose to your life, whether that be weekly trivia night, volunteering at the animal shelter, or staying in touch with long-distance friends.
Pen a Letter of Appreciation
Take a few minutes to write and send a note to somebody who has been meaningful to you: a teacher, coworker, friend, or anyone who has been a positive force in your life. Schoenwald says that this small action can lift your spirits by reminding you there are people who care about you and that good things have happened in your life. As a bonus, you’ll probably make the recipient feel good, too.
Seek Professional Help
If your mental health is getting in the way of your day-to-day life (you’re missing work, canceling social plans, no longer doing hobbies that once brought you joy), then it’s time to reach out to a mental health professional, Schoenwald says. Same goes if you feel a profound sense of sadness, or if you have any big changes in your sleep, eating, or energy patterns.
If you’re thinking about harming yourself or others, seek immediate help by calling or texting 988, the new national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also contact Colorado Crisis Services by calling 1-844-493-8255 or texting “TALK” to 38255. Remember: No matter what you’re feeling, you are not alone. There are people and resources out there that can help.
That said, there’s really never a bad time to seek mental health support. “It doesn’t have to be in the pits of despair in order to be a place where you work with a counselor or therapist to address your mental health,” Ross says. The upcoming winter season can be a great time for all of us to review, reflect, and build better relationships with our brains.