A Therapist Explains How To Get Ready For The Winter Blues

8 ways to prep for Seasonal Affective Disorder.

by Chrissa Hardy and JR Thorpe
Originally Published: 
A woman sits in front of a campfire with a mug of tea. If you get the winter blues, a therapist expl...
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Summer is over, back-to-school sales have come and gone, and the darkness has begun creeping in earlier and earlier each day. There are endless reasons to love autumn — hello, cozy sweaters and sweetened seasonal drinks — but with fall comes winter following close behind. Once once winter hits, Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, can become a difficult force to fight. You're no longer spending as much time outside, which means there are fewer people out and about, and the feeling of isolation is all but a given. Even though Seasonal Affective Disorder is a tough emotional state to shake, there are ways to prepare for SAD now so that it's not so debilitating.

“Seasonal affective patterns of depression are episodes of depressive disorder that present at a particular time of the year, most commonly in the fall or winter," Mayra Mendez Ph.D. L.M.F.T., a psychotherapist at Providence Saint John's Child & Family Development Center, tells Bustle. "There are traditional ways of managing the effects of SAD such as psychotherapy. But there are occasions in which seasonal affective disorder can best be managed by practical everyday strategies."

Here's how you can prep for SAD, and make it much easier to handle.

1. Get On A Morning Schedule

The days are getting shorter, sure, but you can combat the early darkness by pairing your daily schedule with the sunrise. I'm not saying you need to get up at the crack of dawn, but waking up an hour earlier can make you feel sleepier and ready to go to bed sooner, giving your day a lot less dark, and a lot more light.

If you need an incentive to get up early on weekends and free days, Mendez says, consider volunteering with a charity and taking a morning shift. "These activities help to reduce isolation, increase engagement in purposeful and meaningful activities, and provide opportunity to positively impact others’ lives," she says. And it's an excuse to stop hitting the snooze button.

2. Develop A Nighttime Hobby

It's hard to ignore the sinking and restless feeling this disorder creates once you finish work for the day. So, make a distraction for yourself that will be fun and improve a skill. "This might include doing a craft, reading a book on your wish list, going to see a movie, cooking your favorite meal or treat, looking up a new recipe, or listening to an inspirational message," Mendez says. "Doing something that is of interest and maybe even a little special offers an opportunity to feel in control and take care of yourself."

3. Get A Good Cry In

"It is OK to feel overwhelmed and irritated with life at times," Mendez says. Crying can be therapeutic, and a good way to release any anxiety you've been feeling, but you might not be faced with easy cry triggers as often as you need. Unleash those tears with a movie, show, or book that you know will turn on the water works. When you've dried your tears, Mendez says, get busy. "Consider doing a task that takes you away from the overwhelming and towards a happier place, even if only for a few minutes," she says.

4. Get A Workout Routine Going

It'll be harder to get your sweat on outside when it gets chillier, so find a way to take that movement indoors. There are about a billion new apps and ways to stream exercise programs on your phone, TV, or tablet. "Think about what draws you out of negative mood states at other times of the year," Mendez says. "Do not neglect doing the activities that typically bring you joy, such as biking or hiking."

5. Tidy Or Decorate Your Hibernation Den

This project is a surefire way to a) keep you busy, b) declutter your surroundings, and c) give you a fresh start in the same space. "Change the furniture in the home, or repurpose something in the home that seems no longer meaningful," says Mendez. "This strategy activates creative juices and increases the chances that small changes may bring a greater sense of purpose and value to life in the moment." Little successes, like your room looking super cute with a new vase of paper flowers, can help you feel a sense of accomplishment — particularly, Mendez says, if your seasonal depression makes you feel stuck and directionless.

6. Have Your Sleep Hygiene On Lock

Lean into the urge to sleep. A study published in Journal of Sleep Research in 2016 found that people with seasonal affective disorder are more likely than others to experience sleep issues and nightmares during the colder, darker months. Mendez says that people with SAD might find themselves over-sleeping, so if you're exhausted, listen to your body. Try to wake up and go to sleep at the same time each day, and keep electronics out of your bedroom.

7. Find Ways To Snuggle

Basking in the warmth of another has been scientifically proven to make you a happier human. A study in 2018 in Journal of Experimental Psychology found that touching somebody you love helps regulate stress, soothe emotions, and even boosts your cognitive performance. And since summertime is a tough season to snuggle (ugh, all that sweat and humidity), make up for lost time by cuddling with your partner, spouse, or furry pet. If you don't have a pet, Mendez suggests taking a walk in natural surroundings, volunteering at your local animal shelter, pet-sitting, or just cuddling with a stuffed animal or furry blanket.

8. Make A Cold-Weather Bucket List

Why should summer be the only season appropriate for making a bucket list? You can still accomplish a lot of amazing things when the temperatures drop. "Create your own special memories, practices, traditions and rituals," Mendez says. "Wear your favorite outfit. Plan a trip. Engage in giving back to society." This, she says, means you have things to look forward to, and gets you out of the cycles of rumination and isolation that often accompany SAD. By the time winter hits and SAD is at its strongest, you can have go-to plans for bad days: a gingerbread recipe, a snuggle with a dog, and a favorite Netflix show. Combined with therapy, where you explore the thoughts and feelings that can lead to low mood, these techniques can help you get through the cool parts of the year.


Marya Mendez Ph.D. L.M.F.T.

Studies cited:

Sandman, N., Merikanto, I., Määttänen, H., Valli, K., Kronholm, E., Laatikainen, T., Partonen, T., & Paunio, T. (2016). Winter is coming: nightmares and sleep problems during seasonal affective disorder. Journal of sleep research, 25(5), 612–619.

Saunders, B., Riesel, A., Klawohn, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2018). Interpersonal touch enhances cognitive control: A neurophysiological investigation. Journal of experimental psychology. General, 147(7), 1066–1077.

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