You know this feeling. Your phone wakes you up; it’s dark and cold outside; you have very important things to but can’t force a single muscle in your body to get out of bed. You may not be lazy—you actually may have SAD, or seasonal affective disorder. According to the National Institutes of Health, SAD is “a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer.”
Luckily, experts say, there are simple things you can do to feel better (and they’re quicker and easier than waiting around for April).
“Morning sunlight helps to boost our mood and set our circadian rhythm, two crucial elements for beating the winter blues,” says Kaushal M. Kulkarni, M.D, a board-certified ophthalmologist in New York and founder of Eyetamins. Additionally, “Sunlight provides our body with vitamin D, which is shown to naturally improve your sense of mood and well-being,” says Tasha Holland-Kornegay, Ph.D., LPCS, a therapist and founder of Wellness In Real Life.
The Remedy Rx: “Get outside and soak up the rays. Don’t forget the sunscreen,” says Holland-Kornegay. “Can’t get outside? Cozy up next to a window, or consider investing in a natural sun therapy lamp.”
“Human beings are meant to walk every day; it’s part of our evolution,” says Kulkarni. “If you’re like me and it’s cold outside, this is the last thing I want to do. But if you can walk outside every day, even in the cold, you’ll feel amazing.”
The Remedy Rx: “To improve [your] mood in winter, spend 120 minutes per week outside in nature—around a campfire, walking a dog, or just spending a few minutes in a park with your device set to airplane mode,” says John La Puma, MD, FACP, an internal medicine physician and author of ChefMD.
“There is more and more science that is showing us that a daily practice of gratitude, usually first thing in the morning, has a huge positive impact on our mood, our outlook, and our performance,” says Kulkarni.
The Remedy Rx: Buy a notebook and make a point to write down five or ten things you’re grateful for each day. They can be basic or small, like the place you live or your cup of morning coffee. It may sound cheesy, but give it a try—it can put you in a positive mindset for the rest of the day.
“I encourage clients to engage in a behavior or activity regardless of if they ‘feel’ like it or not. They are often pleasantly surprised to observe that putting the behavior first starts to shift their energy and motivation,” says Joy Lere, Psy.D., a psychologist from California.
The Remedy Rx: For optimum health, try to get 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every day. It doesn’t have to be a complicated workout—even walking around the block counts.
Alcohol is a depressant—not the best thing to put in your body if you suffer from the winter blues. You’ll likely find yourself with an emotional hangover the next day, if not a physical one.
The Remedy Rx: Consume alcohol in moderation. The official recommendation from the CDC is up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
Quality sleep is crucial for your overall health, especially mental health. Your internal clock (or circadian rhythm) helps you naturally feel more awake during daylight hours and more tired at night.
The Remedy Rx: To keep your internal clock well calibrated, go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, including the weekend. And make sure you’re getting enough shuteye: Experts such as the National Sleep Foundation recommend getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
“The LEDs on screens are shifted towards the high-energy, short-wavelength part of the visible spectrum (i.e. blue light),” says Kulkarni. “There is more and more research showing that this type of light negatively affects our sleep and may have potential long-term consequences on our vision.”
The Remedy Rx: To ensure a good night’s sleep, reduce your exposure to screens, especially at night. Turn off your cellphone and computer at least two hours before bedtime. Read an old-fashioned book before you nod off instead.
In mental health, mindfulness is the buzzword of the day—it means concentrating on the present moment instead of depression about the past or anxiety about the future. “Mindfulness meditation, in my experience, opens up centered balance and supports insight. It often fosters a soothing toward anxiety of the fatigue that comes with depression,” says Suja Johnkutty, MD, a neurologist based in New York. Meditation is said to stimulate the pineal gland, inducing the secretion of melatonin, which promotes relaxation and feeling of happiness.
The Remedy Rx: Dedicate a portion of your day to meditation. If you have trouble sitting still, start with five minutes and work up to 15. There are several apps that can help.
“Winter blues is often a symptom of low serotonin (the happy chemical),” says Teralyn Sell, Ph.D., a licensed psychotherapist from Wisconsin. A dose of 5-HTP can not only be helpful in raising serotonin but also improving melatonin to help you sleep.”
The Remedy Rx: Talk with your doctor about whether vitamins or supplements might be helpful for you. Be sure to mention any other drugs you’re taking, including antidepressants.
Chilly temps and gray skies might make you want to hibernate in your apartment. Don’t give in to the temptation—social isolation only increases depression.
The Remedy Rx: “You can combine physical activity and socialization— invite a friend for a walk or a gym session,” suggests Nikola Djordjevic, MD, medical advisor at HealthCareers.co. “Having close relationships with friends benefits mental health, and winter is the time of the year when you should make an extra effort to meet with friends regularly.”
“One suggestion for beating the winter blues is playing with your pet. Cuddling with your pet releases oxytocin, the same feel-good hormone you get from being with someone you love or eating a chocolate bar,” says Prairie Conlon, LMHP & Clinical Director of CertaPet. “Also, having a pet gives you something to focus on, a responsibility. Maintaining that structure and having a purpose is helpful with a myriad of mental health issues.”
The Remedy Rx: If you don’t happen to have a pet—or one of the fast-spreading cat cafes around your house—volunteer at a local animal shelter.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is triggered by winter’s decline in sunlight. Using a light box (or SAD lamp) might help. “Using a SAD lamp will help lift your mood through an elevation in serotonin,” says Sell.
The Remedy Rx: Several inexpensive models are available on Amazon. Sell suggests purchasing one that’s 10,000-lux strength and sitting in front of it for 30 minutes every morning.
And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don’t miss these 101 Unhealthiest Habits on the Planet.