Winter Blues or Seasonal Depression? How to Know the Difference and How to Cope

Surviving winter means dealing with snow, cold temperatures, dreary skies, and greater isolation. Many people struggle with winter boredom, missing their regular spring/summer/fall outdoor activities, such as bike riding or running. Some people struggle with anxiety on icy roads, strong winds, wearing multiple layers, or the situational events in the winter season, like post-holiday stress or getting ready to file taxes. When you think about winter, what feelings surface within you? What comes to mind?

An important consideration is seasonal depression. It’s normal to have some winter blues, but if your decreased energy during the winter becomes so severe that it interferes with daily functioning, it’s important to acknowledge your symptoms and seek mental health treatment.

What makes seasonal depression different from typical winter blues? The main difference lies in the severity of depressive symptoms, so it’s important to monitor if your sadness becomes more intense over time. As a therapist, when I see clients who report feeling down in the winter, I’m looking for signs of hopelessness and despair that make daily tasks feel impossible for them. Indicators of seasonal depression include decreased motivation, feelings of worthlessness, chronic negative thought patterns, inability to cope effectively, or any signs of self-harm. In addition, drastic changes in your eating, sleeping, or self-care routines may be signs of depression. If you start noticing any of these symptoms, don’t be afraid to seek out resources for help. Therapists are very familiar with seasonal depression and some even call it the “common cold” of the mental health field because of how common these symptoms can be.

One of the reasons these symptoms are so common is due to the absence of sunshine during the winter months. Without regular levels of vitamin D from sunlight, people can biologically begin to feel more depressed than normal. Ask your doctor about options for vitamin D supplements if you feel like this may be beneficial for you. Another strategy for coping with the absence of sunlight is using sunlamps in your home, sometimes called light therapy devices. Although you might be skeptical at first, many people report feeling increased energy after using sunlamps.

Other coping skills for seasonal depression include talking about your feelings with people in your support system, establishing a healthy routine that includes some exercise and creative outlets like crafts or board games, learning a new skill or hobby, or planning extra time for self-soothing activities, such as listening to music, having a warm bath, lighting candles, or anything else that makes you feel soothed. Avoid things that contribute to stress, such as over-working, toxic relationships, peer pressure,  or anything that causes you internal anguish.

It’s also important to be self-compassionate. This means being gentle with yourself instead of becoming self-critical about your symptoms. Sometimes when people experience depression, they struggle with racing thoughts of negativity. You might inaccurately believe you are lazy, inadequate, or unworthy because of your depression. Challenge these inaccurate thoughts! Fight these thoughts by reframing them into more positive statements. Whenever these thoughts surface in your mind, practice saying something different aloud, such as, “Depression is not my fault. My symptoms are valid. I am doing the best I can. I am important, safe, worthy, and deserving of love and happiness. I know I can work through this and things will improve.”

Holding onto hope is critical for recovery. Remember that seasonal depression is treatable and many people are able to improve their symptoms through healthy coping, using their support systems, working with a therapist, medication, self-care, and by taking one day at a time.

Written by Lauren Presutti

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