Tips to fend off the winter blues
As temperatures drop and daylight hours decrease, it’s not unusual for people to express dread about the dark days ahead. Many of us also continue to work from home and spend much of our time indoors. Without the change of environment and personal interactions that workplaces can provide, it’s even more difficult to escape the “winter blues.”
For many, though, this time of year marks the onset of a more serious condition. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression that usually gets worse during the fall and winter. Common symptoms include fatigue, difficulty sleeping, a decreased interest in socializing and feelings of hopelessness.
Of course, if you think you might be struggling with SAD or another serious condition, your first step should be to consult your physician or a mental health professional, particularly if the feelings are persistent or overwhelming.
But there are also changes you can make at home that may ease your symptoms. We spoke with several experts on mental health and organization about things you can do to boost your mood. Here are their suggestions.
Clean and organize
Creating a brighter, uncluttered environment can help ward off melancholy, especially for those who are spending most of their hours inside. Spring is often associated with deep cleaning and organizing, but now is also a good time to rethink how our homes are set up and to tackle clutter.
Melva Green, a psychiatrist and co-author of the book “Breathing Room: Open Your Heart By Decluttering Your Home,” says that reducing clutter, getting rid of broken or damaged items, and placing pieces that elicit joy in plain sight are simple ways to improve your mood.
“Place plants or fragrant flowers in areas that not only bring visual beauty but also bolster vitality and life force with their aromatherapy,” she says. “Also, position furniture so that there are more open spaces, more breathing room.
“There are ancient sciences, like feng shui, for example, that teach the importance of harmonizing the energies/natural elements in our homes and how to arrange spaces for health, wealth and general vitality,” she adds.
Part of that includes maximizing the natural light you do get, says Kate Hanselman, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at Thriveworks, an online counseling platform.
“Moving a bed near the window, facing it for morning sun, making sure windows are clear and letting in as much sunlight as possible, and keeping things tidy can all help boost mood in the winter,” she says. “A dark, cluttered room is a hard place to improve one’s mental health.”
Address your senses
One of the most popular aids for seasonal depression is a lightbox or light therapy lamp, which works by mimicking outdoor light. Experts recommend using them for about 20 to 30 minutes, preferably in the morning, and placing the light about 16 to 24 inches from your face for the best results.
If you can’t devote 30 minutes to sitting in front of the lamp, Hanselman suggests using it while you’re working at your desk or making breakfast. If you’ll be moving around while using it, she says, opt for a larger lamp, so you’re still within the light’s reach.
Other products Hanselman recommends include smart blinds that open at scheduled times, such as the Serena by Lutron smart blinds (serenashades.com), and lightbulbs that imitate natural light, such as the WhitePoplar full-spectrum natural sunlight bulbs ($37.99 for a pack of four, amazon.com).
Soothing scents can also help, says Terrell Smith, a resident physician at the University of Virginia and the founding physician of Spora Health, a telehealth platform for people of color. “Consider getting a diffuser for your kitchen, bedroom, home office or bathroom, and try ‘happy’ scents, such as bergamot, orange and lemon,” he says.
Diffusers come in various sizes and styles. Experts advise keeping aroma diffusers out of reach of small children and pets. Smith likes the Porseme 500-milliliter oil diffuser ($59.97, porseme.store), which can emit aromas for up to 21 hours, depending on the setting.
Creating an optimal environment for sleep so you are well-rested is another way to beat back symptoms of seasonal depression. Although it’s good to let light in during the day, experts suggest keeping bedrooms dark for sleeping and avoiding screens before bedtime.
“Try embracing ‘hygge,’ ” Smith says, referring to the Danish practice of focusing on coziness and comfort. Light your favorite scented candle (make sure it’s not burning when you fall asleep) and add pillows and big blankets to your bed.
This goes for children’s rooms, too. Kids and teens can be affected by seasonal depression, and Emily Simonian, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says involving children in making fun changes to their rooms can help promote sleep and improve their moods.
For additional light, Simonian says, “consider letting your child have a lighted aquarium with low-maintenance pets like fish or turtles. The novelty and companionship are natural mood boosters.” She also suggests adding string lights or glow-in-the-dark stickers.
And, as with adults, make sure the overnight environment in children’s bedrooms is conducive to restful sleep, Smith says.
“In the battle against seasonal depression, getting a good amount of quality sleep goes a long way,” he says. Room-darkening curtains, cozy bedding and aromatherapy can help. “Also try getting a dawn-simulator alarm clock rather than waking [kids] up abruptly with beeping or loud music.” The alarm clocks “produce light that gradually increases in intensity, just like the sun,” he says.