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Be Well.

Be Orange.

Weathering the Winter Blues

February 29th, 2012

David Kerr, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Psychology Department

Oregon is a beautiful place to live. However, as you may have noticed, it turns quite dark, cold, and drippy here in the winter. You may find that your mood and well-being also change with the seasons. Specifically, you may feel more sad, irritable, or just “blah.” Your sleep patterns, energy, concentration, appetite, and weight may change, and it may be harder to find activities you enjoy. You also might have dark, cold, and drippy thoughts like, “I’m a loser,” “school sucks,” and “things are never going to change.” For some people these experiences stick around for too long and can start to interfere with their daily life, such as socializing, studying, and working. In these cases, these problems may be part of a mental health problem, such as major depressive disorder. A pattern of depression that becomes serious in one time of year (usually Fall/Winter) and goes away in another time of year (usually Spring/Summer) for several years is called “seasonal affective disorder” (SAD).

Studies of the prevalence of SAD are limited, but suggest 1-10% of people have the illness. Other research supports that 27% of people experience “problematic” (if not clinically impairing) seasonal changes in mood and behavior. Thus, having the winter blues may be quite common, and may be very unpleasant and disruptive, even if it is not a clinical disorder.

The dominant theory of why SAD occurs focuses on effects that seasonal decreases in sunlight have on our brains. Specifically, sunlight is used by primitive parts of the brains that regulate sleep/wake cycles (circadian rhythms) and perhaps areas of the brain known to regulate hibernation in other mammals. Disruption in these cycles may create a kind of hibernation syndrome whereby the brain tells the body to stock up on food, limit energy expenditure, and hunker down for the winter. Deficiencies in Vitamin D also have been theorized to play a role in the winter blues (our skin produces Vitamin D in response to sunlight exposure, which is reduced in Winter). While these explanations are appealing, studies have not clearly teased apart whether changes in sunlight per se, as opposed to seasonal changes in social and psychological factors are responsible for SAD and the winter blues. Given this, it may be wisest to consider several lifestyle changes rather than to focus exclusively on light exposure.

  1. Get active. Don’t let the weather stop you from being active and going outside. Exercise can be social or meditative and can improve sleep. Find new routines, such as indoor exercise, or walks in your rain gear.
  2. When it comes to sleep, be boring. Make your sleep schedule as regular and predictable as possible, and get enough sleep.
  3. Do it anyway. Depression tells you to stay home and pass up social stimulation. Being alone and inactive can feed a cycle of negative thoughts and depressed mood. So even when you don’t feel like it, try to “do it anyway.”
  4. Be with people. The support you get from friends and family helps you handle stress and avoid depression. Make an extra effort to call or spend time with people when you need a lift.
  5. Moderate your substance use. Alcohol is a depressant—so it is not a great antidote for depression. Substance use can impact your mood, sleep, appetite, weight, and social relationships.

Other options are available for individuals with more serious symptoms of SAD or winter blues. First, effective treatments for non-seasonal depression, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and antidepressant medication also are effective for SAD. Second, controlled trials support that symptoms of SAD (as well as of the winter blues and non-seasonal depression) respond positively to full-spectrum light therapy. Light boxes can be purchased online, are available for a two-week rental period at Student Health Services (for $11) and are available for use at The Mind Spa (5th Floor Snell Hall; http://oregonstate.edu/counsel/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad-light ). However, intermittent, irregular use would not be expected to be effective (e.g., Golden et al., 2005 reviewed treatment trials that gave individuals at least 3,000 lux-hours of exposure, at least 4 days per week, and in most trials individuals were told to use light boxes as soon after waking as possible). We recommend that those interested in using light boxes consider a period of regular and repeated use, read manufacturer’s instruction carefully, and consider consulting with a counselor or therapist about how to maximize benefit.  Counselors at CAPS encourage students to use light therapy in coordination with counseling and/or medication for the best results.

For some people, making lifestyle changes and improving self-care will help them weather the winter blues. But if you think you are experiencing a more significant depression or are having thoughts of suicide, it is time to get help from a counselor or therapist. Call and make an appointment today at Counseling and Psychological Services (541.752.3268) during regular business hours, and please know that you can call the national Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK at any time.

Be Well. Be Orange.


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