Winter Blues vs Seasonal Affective Disorder

Winter is the most peaceful time of year. As nature slows down and the sun goes to sleep, many families take advantage of the quiet to rest and recharge as they prepare for the coming spring. For some of us, however, the coldest season brings something a bit more distressing than relaxing: the winter blues.

Aptly named, the winter blues is a feeling of sadness that arrives with the changing seasons. As days get shorter and weather gets colder, the lack of direct sunlight can zap your energy and leave you feeling listless and lethargic. Thankfully, the winter blues typically fade away as your body gets used to colder weather. 

This isn’t always the case, however. Sometimes this sadness sticks around until spring. If the winter blues make it difficult to fulfill day-to-day tasks, it may be a sign of seasonal affective disorder, otherwise known as seasonal depression. 

While both the winter blues and SAD primarily affect adults, kids and teens aren’t totally immune. Thankfully, there are a plethora of ways that your family can work together to help each other avoid staying down in the dumps this season. 

Before we get into the list though, let’s take a quick look at the winter blues vs seasonal affective disorder.

How Do the Winter Blues and Season Depression Differ?

Most of us get the winter blues at some point or another, but not everybody experiences seasonal depression. So what’s the story regarding the winter blues vs seasonal affective disorder?

Well, feeling down occasionally during winter is pretty typical. The winter blues affects most of us from time to time—after all, snowy winter weather can get pretty nasty. However, this sadness isn’t crippling and doesn’t affect your day-to-day life. With a little help and encouragement from family and friends, it’s possible to move past these feelings and enjoy all the excitement that winter has to offer.

Seasonal affective disorder (appropriately abbreviated as SAD), is another story. It’s a form of clinical depression that is brought on by the shifting of the seasons. Unlike the winter blues, seasonal depression is pretty crippling. People living with SAD feel down more often than they feel happy, and often find it difficult to fulfill everyday tasks. Other symptoms include:

  • Feeling listless, sad or down most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having low energy and feeling sluggish
  • Having problems with sleeping too much
  • Experiencing carbohydrate cravings, overeating, and weight gain
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless, or guilty
  • Having thoughts of not wanting to live

Typically, seasonal depression arrives in early winter and departs with the spring thaw. Interestingly, however, it affects some people in the opposite way! According to WedMD, about 10% of people living with seasonal depression experience symptoms during summer months when the sun is at its peak.

Want more info? Check out this helpful article from VerywellMind for a detailed look at the winter blues vs. seasonal affective disorder.

Ten Ways to Beat the Winter Blues

When you or a family member is struggling with the winter blues or seasonal depression, there are ways to help that don’t include doom-scrolling through social media. Instead, making a change and putting in effort to improve can make a difference. 

Check out these ten ways that you and your family can help each other beat the winter blues this season.

Get Outside and Move

When there’s no sun shining, it can be tempting to stay indoors and spend time with your screen. As with all forms of depression, however, exercising can actually help you avoid the sadness that comes with no sun. Moving your body helps it produce endorphins, which are some of the chemical neurotransmitters responsible for helping your brain feel good. If you can, get outside when you exercise in order to soak up the sun while it’s there.

There are a ton of fun outdoor activities that your family can take advantage of this winter. Go snowshoeing, have a snowball fight, or hit the slopes with your favorite pair of skis. 

Invest in a SAD Lamp

If your family is like me and lives in a place where the winter sun is often hidden behind clouds, a SAD lamp could be just the thing to raise your spirits. These lamps, also known as phototherapy boxes, simulate sunlight and boost your mood in turn. I use a SAD lamp pretty regularly and have found that it makes a world of difference.

It’s typically recommended to sit in front of the bright light lamp for about 20 minutes every morning to help your body maintain a typical circadian rhythm and gain the energy you need to tackle the day. So if your teen is struggling with their winter mood, encourage them to get a lamp and turn it on as they eat their breakfast! 

Get Enough Vitamin D

Studies report that vitamin D deficiency is one of the leading symptoms of seasonal depression. Because the sun is often out while the kids are at school and parents are working, it can be difficult to get enough vitamin D. This can contribute to the pesky winter blues. Thankfully there are other ways to get vitamin D that don’t involve the sun.

In addition to soaking up some rays, you can get vitamin D by drinking fish oil, eating foods rich in vitamin D like fish and dairy, and taking supplements. If you decide to go the supplement route, I recommend talking with a doctor before you incorporate them into your daily routine. Too much vitamin D can cause nausea, vomiting, and fatigue, and a doctor can help you determine if supplements are a good option.

Spend Time with Friends

When the winter blues bare their fangs, it can take a lot of energy to get out of bed, let alone socialize. However, isolation is a pretty serious symptom of seasonal depression. When you spend all your time inside, getting outside with friends who love and care for you can be just what you need to feel better. 

Prioritize spending time with friends and family when you feel the winter blues sliding in. This socializing doesn’t need to be anything crazy: simply go on a walk, play some games, or watch your family’s favorite movie together.

Call a Family Member

My favorite thing about technology is how easy it makes it to stay connected with family. Even when we’re stuck at home on a snowy day, we can call our far-away family members for a warm word and a mood boost. I live in Norway, and talking to my family on the phone has been an absolute blessing as I push through the dark Nordic winter.

Practice Mindfulness

In our chaotic world, it can be difficult to find a moment for peace and quiet. However, stillness can be really beneficial for your mental health, and help you fight off the symptoms of seasonal depression. Many people practice mindfulness to help themselves live in the present moment and stop worrying or thinking about the thing that’s depressing them.

Take some time this winter to be mindful and enjoy the small things. Do some yoga, go on a mindful walk, or practice meditation. If your child has a Troomi phone, they can even use the KidSmartⓇ apps like Headspace to follow guided meditations that can help them calm down when they’re beset by anxiety. Click here to read a bit more about why a Troomi smartphone is the best (and safest) option for your child!

Do Some Service

My dad always says that there’s no better way to help yourself than by helping someone else. I think there’s some wisdom there—and scientific studies agree. In many situations, helping others provides way more happiness than helping yourself. 

There is no shortage of ways to practice service during winter. Shovel your neighbor’s driveway after a snowy day, help them take down their Christmas lights once the season has passed, or bake a delicious holiday treat and give it to someone as a surprise. Random acts of kindness are fun to receive, but even more fun to give.

Read a New Book

When the dark and gloomy weather of winter is getting you down, there’s no better remedy than a good book. After all, books can take you anywhere—including to a tropical island where the sun shines 24/7.

Reading doesn’t have to be a solitary adventure. Get your kids involved by holding a nightly family story time! Choose a book that everyone is excited about, then take turns reading a bit of the book every night. It’s great for family togetherness, and can help you forget about the windy winter waiting outside.

Have Fun with Hobbies

Keeping your mind busy is one of the best ways to fight off the winter blues. Often, when we’re depressed or lonely, a hobby can be just the ticket to get our minds off our woes and focused on excitement.

The world is full of hobbies; there’s something out there for everyone. If you’re a creative mind, start painting, learn how to build a sculpture out of clay, or try your hand at writing poetry. If you’re more of a logical person, learn how to play chess or buy a telescope and start mapping the stars. You can even get the whole family involved by choosing a group hobby like hiking!

Start a Gratitude Journal

Often, changing your mindset can change the way you feel about a situation. Instead of wallowing in the despair inherent to the winter season, try focusing on gratitude. One of the best ways to do this is by writing in a daily gratitude journal. 

Before you start your day, write down five things that you’re grateful for. Incorporating this into your morning routine will help you start your days on a positive note, so that you can enjoy winter for what it is—peaceful and restorative. However, this habit doesn’t need to be limited to winter. Starting your day with gratitude should be a year-round activity!

Wave Goodbye to the Winter Blues

At its best, winter is quiet, relaxing, and restorative. At its worst, on the other hand, the stormy weather and lack of sunlight inherent to the season can cause you and your family to feel the winter blues. There is a difference when it comes to the winter blues vs seasonal affective disorder, however. If you’re like me and suffer from occasional bouts of seasonal depression, this season can be especially difficult. 

Thankfully, there are so many potential ways to take your mind off sadness this season. Start a new hobby, call up a friend, or spend some quality time with family. The winter blues likely won’t disappear overnight, but it certainly won’t hang around forever.