7 Ways to Improve Your Mental Health & Overcome Seasonal Depression

It’s not always easy to put on a happy face during the winter. Shorter days and less sun can affect us both physically and mentally. “Sunlight stimulates vitamin D production and causes the release of nitric oxide into the blood, which lowers blood pressure and improves cardiac health,” says HSS clinical psychologist Julia M. Kim, PhD. Sunlight also increases serotonin production, which helps stabilize mood and overall sense of well-being.

On the flip side, darkness triggers melatonin, the hormone that tells us it’s time to sleep. So the combination of all these factors, well, it can do a number on our mood.

Happily, you don’t need a trip to the tropics to get into a sunny state. “We have the ability to choose our outlook on life, and to work toward making it the best it can be no matter the circumstances,” says Dr. Kim. The weather will change, but your ability to make the most of life is constant.

Here are seven things you can do to help boost your mood all winter long. 

  1. Moderate your media intake. The news is rarely pretty. But these days, the constant COVID coverage and updates on new variants is enough to sink anyone’s spirit. While staying informed is important, that doesn’t mean you need to oversaturate yourself. “The news repeats the same information over and over – you don’t need to hear it multiple times a day from different sources,” says Dr. Kim. Pay attention to how the news is delivered. Is it presented factually or sensationally? Since this can be subjective, ask yourself how it makes you feel. If you’re getting information, okay. If you’re getting emotionally worked up, maybe not so okay.
  2. Keep a gratitude journal. Sit down quietly every night and take a few minutes to jot down at least three things that happened that day that you’re grateful for. They don’t have to be huge. One could be as simple as acknowledging that the sun was out, so you were able to walk to work. While it may seem like an enormous undertaking to focus on gratitude in the dead of winter (not to mention in the middle of a worldwide pandemic), turning your attention to the positives can lead to deeper meaning in your day-to-day experiences and help you feel good about whatever is going on in your world.
  3. Winterize your workout. When temperatures plummet, it can be tempting to snuggle up on the couch with a cup of hot cocoa and stay put for the season. Fight the urge – it’s important to stay active through the winter. In addition to the health benefits, regular exercise helps you sleep better, gives you more energy and reduces anxiety.

If you head outdoors, dress in layers so you can peel off clothing as your core temperature heats up. And make sure you drink plenty of liquids – you may not feel as thirsty when it’s cold, so you’re more prone to dehydration. Always start your workout with a warm-up and end with a cooldown and stretch. If you’d rather exercise inside, stay on track by finding a buddy (text a friend daily, or join a Facebook or Instagram group that focuses on fitness) to keep you accountable.

  1. Reach for the right foods. When a craving hits, you may feel like gobbling down a candy bar to blast you with energy. Unfortunately, that quick pick-me-up will turn to a drag-you-down when your blood sugar tumbles. Instead of something sugary sweet, try something with complex carbs and a little bit of protein, which will keep your blood sugar – and your mood — steadier. Feel-good snacks include a bowl of bran cereal with low-fat milk, almond butter on an apple or tuna on whole wheat crackers.
  2. Find your friends. COVID has obviously put a damper on so many people’s social lives. But that doesn’t mean you need to hole up in your house until spring. Unless you’re at high risk or unvaccinated, in-person socializing is possible. Follow the latest updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for guidance on how to socialize more safely. Even if you don’t feel comfortable mingling in larger groups, you can connect with a friend, whether for a walk outside, a cup of socially distanced coffee or a video chat.
  3. Invest in a cause you care about. That doesn’t necessarily mean opening your wallet. Volunteer your time at a soup kitchen, bring items you no longer use to a homeless shelter, join an additional PTA committee at your child’s school or just perform a random act of kindness. “Helping, caring and giving to others provides a sense of purpose,” says Dr. Kim. And when you have a purpose in life, you don’t care about the gloomy weather. 

7. Embrace the season. Don’t fight the frost – take what’s unique about the winter and spoil yourself with it. “It’s always more beneficial to focus on what you do have and what you can do rather than what you lack,” says Dr. Kim. Fill your house with items that represent the winter. Indulge your senses, either one, two or all five of them at once. Pick up some cranberry-scented soaps, bake (and eat!) a batch of gingerbread cookies, crank up the holiday tunes, view the twinkling lights around your neighborhood or enjoy the warmth of the fire while snuggling beneath a fluffy throw blanket.