This has been a pretty rough winter—and as I write this, it’s only January. With the pandemic continuing to alter our usual routines and rituals, time has become distorted, and I find myself hoping for an early spring.

As the calendar turns to February, we’re halfway there—roughly at the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In ancient cultures, this time of year was celebrated with feasting, revelry and the ritual lighting of fires to recognize the return of the sun and the impending reawakening of nature.

Groundhog Day, celebrated February 2nd, derives from these mid-winter celebrations. Coincidentally, my oldest son was born on Groundhog Day (and, no, we didn’t name him Phil). In elementary school, his classmates would want to go outside with him to see if he cast a shadow.

I’m not sure what winter is like where you are, but here in the upper Midwest, it is frequently very cold, snowy and dark—with day after day of sunless gray skies that look—and feel—like a lead blanket.

It wasn’t until I moved to Wisconsin from sunny California (don’t ask, long story…) that I realized how sensitive my mood is to the weather and, specifically, sunlight.

A spectrum of winter blues

The winter blues are very common, with many of us experiencing a mood shift during the colder, darker days of winter. It’s normal to feel somewhat lethargic and down this time of year.

Some people, however, experience a more severe version of this downturn. This condition is known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. This is a recurring form of clinical depression connected to the change in seasons. It usually starts in autumn and continues through the winter. Whether it’s SAD or just the “winter blues,” the cause is the same: much lower levels of natural light during the shorter days of winter.

When we’re exposed to less sunlight, our bodies and brains undergo numerous changes, including disruptions in our circadian rhythm (the body’s internal “clock”) and reductions in serotonin (a neurotransmitter that helps regulate our mood and energy levels).

It is interesting to note that the incidence of SAD is about six times greater for Americans who live near the Canadian border than it is for people in Florida.

If you’re looking to fight the winter blues, here are some tips:

  • Sunlight: Remember, light is key. During these darker days, it’s important to get outside whenever the sun is shining. Exposing yourself to natural light will help boost serotonin production and improve your overall mood.
  • Light therapy: The best alternative to natural sunlight is light therapy, which uses boxes with bright, fluorescent bulbs that mimic natural sunlight. Light therapy can be particularly helpful in regulating the release of melatonin, which increases when the sun goes down.
  • Exercise: Research consistently shows a strong connection between exercise and mental and emotional health, especially depression and anxiety. Exercise can increase serotonin and endorphin levels, improving mood and energy. That’s why experts often refer to exercise as nature’s antidepressant. Moderate exercise for 30-plus minutes per day, several days a week, seems to help the most.
  • Therapy: While therapy isn’t a ‘‘cure,’’ it’s certainly a great tool to help manage your thoughts and feelings and aid in recovery. More research is needed, but a recent study in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that cognitive-behavioral therapy may be a more effective long-term treatment for SAD than light therapy.
  • Medication: Some people find that their symptoms don’t improve despite trying all the methods listed above. In these cases, antidepressants can improve chemical imbalances connected to SAD. Consult with your physician if you think this might be the case for you.

If you think you might have seasonal affective disorder and are interested in connecting with a counselor, or if you’re just looking for more tips on how to take care of yourself this winter, contact FEI and we’ll help you get started.