Feeling Sad in Winter

Mariko Hewer

The other day, I looked out my living-room window around 7:30 p.m. and was surprised to see how dim it had gotten outside. The vibrant goldenrod of the late-afternoon sun had already deepened into the burnt sienna, indigo, and magenta glow of sunset, and the cicadas were screaming a manic lullaby. That’s odd, I thought. Shouldn’t it be light for another hour or so?


I had fallen into what I like to call my Autumn Trap: As a person who thrives on exposure to light (especially natural light), it seems I’m so desperate to extend summer every year that I subconsciously block out the sun’s ever-earlier descent starting June 22. Invariably, however, I am brought face to face with reality — apparently sometime around mid-September — and inevitably begin my slow descent into the deep heart of winter.


My feelings about winter (so fresh and so cool! so dark and so bleak!) are complicated, but my feelings about the increasing lack of sunshine are clear: I hate it. Research has examined whether Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) might actually be a variant of bipolar disorder. A 2015 study asked whether circadian rhythm and bipolar disorder might be causally related, and a quick Internet search reveals dozens of tips for staying upbeat and energized during the fall and winter months, SAD or not.


Last year, determined to get a handle on my seasonal slumps, I bought a light box, which has been shown to help treat bipolar individuals with “winter depression.” I’ve found that a daily dose of approximately an hour has significantly lifted my mood during winter, and definitely plan to break it out again this autumn.


Here are some other tips for people feeling anxious about the loss of light:

  • Reframe your priorities. Rather than aiming for an ambitious personal goal or setting unrealistic work expectations in autumn or winter, shift your focus to yourself and your own well-being (as much as possible). Did you manage to make it through the day? Reward yourself with some self-care. Tough week? Cut yourself some slack. Small mindset changes be surprisingly effective over time.
  • Exercise. If you just rolled your eyes, I totally get it: Nothing is less appealing than being told to exert a significant amount of energy when you feel you’re running on empty and it’s cold and gloomy. But research has shown that just 30 minutes of walking every day for 10 days can produce a statistically significant decrease in depression. If you have a dog, make your pup the excuse to take a longer-than-usual walk and soak up the sunshine on the weekends. Alternatively, grab a friend and hit the park — studies have shown that walking in nature with others can increase feelings of well-being.
  • Consider adjusting medications. If you’re on meds, especially antidepressants, think about consulting your doctor and temporarily increasing your dose. A yearly pattern of depression in winter may merit a proactive seasonal increase.
  • Connect with others. This strategy also requires effort, but like exercise, it’s usually well worth the initial energy investment. Take advantage of the temperate autumn weather and grab coffee with a friend outside or join a mental health support group. If you feel up to it, volunteering can deliver a one-two shot of positivity: You connect with others and made a positive difference in the world.
  • When all else fails, rest. I’m not suggesting you hibernate the winter away (although that was the thought-provoking premise of a short story I read recently), but I am saying you should cut yourself a little slack when it comes to relaxing and reenergizing during the winter. Remember that, when the spring comes, you’ll be due for a dose of energy!


Read more blog posts from Mariko Hewer here!

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