For many of us, the winter months are bittersweet. Sure, it may be the time of year for loved ones to come together for holiday celebrations, but it can also be a tricky season to navigate.

The term ‘winter blues’ is casually used to refer to a mild form of seasonal affective disorder that occurs during the winter months. Some of the most common symptoms of the winter blues include a general downturn in mood, persistent feelings of fatigue, pronounced drowsiness, being withdrawn from others and irritability. In essence, people experience the winter blues due to feeling trapped indoors by cold weather, the lack of sunlight and the potential stress that the holidays can cause.

It’s estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of Americans experience the winter blues,1 which set in as the weather gets colder and begin to fade away as spring arrives. In most circumstances, the winter blues aren’t cause for major concern. However, individuals in recovery should take special care when it comes to the winter blues. Feelings of sadness, stress and anger are known to be substance abuse triggers, which means the winter blues could potentially trigger a relapse, too. But it’s not all bad news. In fact, if you’re in recovery and trying to stay sober while dealing with a case of the winter blues, you’ll be happy to know that there are several ways to beat those blues and safeguard your sobriety.

Raise Your Spirits with Sunlight

During the warmer months, we enjoy sunshine until late evening, but it gets dark much earlier during the winter. Due to careers, school and other daytime obligations, we may get very few chances to take in the wintertime sun. And on days when we could enjoy some sunlight, cold temperatures can make it difficult to stay outside for any length of time.

When it comes to the winter blues, one of the biggest instigators is how little sunlight there is on winter days. Being in the sunlight is known to have a number of health benefits, particularly when it comes to mood and mental health. In fact, phototherapy — the therapeutic use of light — has been used to treat many types of depression as well as other emotional disorders. Sunlight is known to trigger the release of serotonin and a number of hormones in the brain that elevate a person’s mood. By comparison, darkness causes the brain to produce melatonin, which is contributes to pervading drowsiness.2 Therefore, making time to take in some sunlight at least a few times each week can lead to immense improvements in mood. If it’s too cold to spend extended periods outdoors during the winter, an alternative could be sitting near an artificial light called a “light box,” which a Harvard study found to be at least as effective as antidepressants.3

serotonin melatonin released sunlight darkness

Be Strategic with Your Diet

Most people associate diet with weight. Eating unhealthy foods leads to weight gain while leading healthy foods leads to weight loss. However, in addition to physical health, the things we eat can have a significant effect on mental health. The most often-cited example of this is dark chocolate, which, due to the antioxidants it contains, can reduce hormones in the brain related to stress and anxiety.4 As well, foods that are high in carbohydrates are beneficial to one’s mood, causing an increase in serotonin levels. Eating fish — particularly fatty fish like salmon, tuna and trout — is another great way to fight off the winter blues since the omega-3s in fish are known to be beneficial to mood. Of course, there are many other foods that can improve a person’s mood, making this one of the most accessible and easiest ways to alleviate seasonal depression.

Listen to Some Uplifting Music

Sometimes the most obvious solution is the one that’s most often overlooked. In 2013, researchers at the University of Missouri found that subjects who listened to cheerful, uplifting music soon experienced a notable improvement in their mood. When the subjects continued listening to the cheerful music over a two-week period, the effects became much more pronounced and lasted for longer and longer stretches of time.5 Basically, this study shows what many had already expected, which is that listening to “happy” music tends to evoke feelings of happiness in the listener. For this reason, listening to uplifting music could be a very simple way to ward off the winter blues.

Exercise and Physical Activity

When you’re dealing with a case of the winter blues, exercise may be the last thing you want to do. Due to the increase in melatonin levels, individuals tend to feel drowsy and have trouble finding the motivation to exercise. However, while aerobic exercise would certainly yield the most benefit, getting any physical activity at all has major benefits.

Researchers at the Harvard Medical School determined that five brisk, fast-paced walks for 35 minutes each week, or three 60-minute walks per week, led to major improvements in symptoms of depression.6 Another study found that exercising in sunlight or under bright light was particularly effective in alleviating symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.7 Of course, there are other benefits beyond improvements in mood, including boosts in social and cognitive functioning, so incorporating physical activity into one’s wintertime routine can help alleviate seasonal depression while improving overall health.

The most difficult part of overcoming the winter blues may be finding the motivation to put any of these strategies into practice. However, with some sunlight, a strategic diet, a little upbeat music and some physical activity, you can improve your mood and hold onto your sobriety by keeping those winter blues at bay.



Written by Dane O’Leary