Q&A: The best ways to break the ‘winter blues’


Cassandra Nichols is a licensed psychologist and the director of WSU Counseling and Psychological Services.

JENNIFER LADWIG, Evergreen mint editor

Winter can lead to seasonal depression and moodiness. Mint talked with Cassandra Nichols, a licensed psychologist and director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), over email about how to cheer yourself up when the cold has you down.

Q: Why does winter affect people’s moods so much?

A: Some people suffer from the “winter blues,” which researchers attribute to shorter days and a reduction of daylight. Some experts believe that light entering the eye causes changes in hormone levels in the body – light functions to stop the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, making us wake up. We may be more sleepy and fatigued in the winter because the lack of light only slightly reduces melatonin but does not stop its production. Additionally, less light may contribute to less production of serotonin which may contribute to sadness and lethargy.

Also, the winter holidays often bring time off, fun times spent with family and friends, celebrations. After the holidays we have to “get back to business,” and there may be a dip in our moods because the we are coming off of these good times.

While minor “winter blues” may not be unusual, in more severe cases winter blues can be the result of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Symptoms of Fall and Winter SAD may include:

  • Irritability
  • Tiredness or low energy
  • Problems getting along with other people
  • Hypersensitivity to rejection
  • Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain

Symptoms of Spring and Summer SAD may include:

  • Depression
  • Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
  • Weight loss
  • Poor appetite
  • Agitation or anxiety

Q: What are the best ways to pull yourself out of a “winter funk?”

A: There are many ways to pull yourself out of a “winter funk.” Here are some tried and true ways, well supported by research:

  • Set a timer to have your bedroom lights go on a half hour before you wake up to simulate daylight
  • Go outside within two hours of waking up, no matter the temperatures
  • See your medical provider and have your vitamin D levels checked. You might benefit from taking vitamin D supplements
  • Avoid simple carb cravings and eat more complex carbs
  • Make your house brighter by opening the blinds or turn on lights
  • Stay social
  • Get exercise
  • Keep to a sleep schedule of eight to nine hours a night, getting up and going to sleep around the same time, even on weekends
  • Limit your caffeine use
  • Listen to your favorite upbeat music

If you have tried these and you still feel down or if you otherwise think that you are dealing with depression, see a mental health provider at CAPS or a medical provider at Health and Wellness Services who can assess for SAD. One type of therapy that might be suggested is Light Therapy.

Q: What is your favorite thing to do to cheer yourself up during winter?

A: My favorite things to do over the winter is spend time with my family (I’m a hockey mom!), get outdoors (this is great snow shoeing weather), yoga, eat well (my husband is the family cook and he is great), and listen to upbeat music. Right now my family and I are enjoying Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic” – such fun and upbeat tunes!