There's a difference between a winter funk and the more severe condition, seasonal affective disorder, says LaFrance, the latter of which is characterized by clinical depression, anxiety, and changes in weight. "The difference is usually seen in the severity and intensity of symptoms," she says. "It's OK to cry, but are you crying for three days straight?" She adds that winter blues usually last a couple of days, at the end of which you can find something to be happy about or some pleasure in your life.
Gary Malone, MD, medical director and chief of psychiatry at Baylor All Saints Medical Center at Fort Worth, adds that serious symptoms, such as rapid changes in weight and sleeping more than nine hours a day or less than five, are signs of a more serious disorder. "You do need medication when you become so depressed that you can't function on a daily basis," he says.
For anyone dealing with a simple bout of winter funk, the best coping mechanisms are simple steps like eating right, exercising, and not focusing too much on the weather outside:
#1: Try to pinpoint what is getting you down. You may automatically assume it's the weather or the shorter days, but some of your misery may be attributable to cultural factors. Even something seemingly trivial, like your favorite football team having a losing season, can be a contributor; LaFrance says psychiatrists have written papers on the effect of sports-team losses on the cultural psyche. Or, he adds, it could be as simple as those holiday bills. "Stress from finances can play into that a lot," she says, "particularly with the economic problems people are having right now." Depression really depends on the individual, Dr. Malone adds, and once you figure out what's getting you down, you're better able to cope or improve your circumstances.
#2: Don't let your mood dictate your plans. If you're in a funk, it's important to keep up your social contacts, says Dr. Malone. People generally make plans with friends when they're feeling good, and then cancel those plans when they feel down—which, he says, will just make you feel worse. "Of course you want to keep a balance, and you don't want to go out every night. But if you find yourself getting depressed and withdrawing from your friends, pay attention to that," he says. "Sitting in a dark house watching TV isn't good for anybody." Push yourself to keep your social obligations even if you'd rather hibernate. And, adds LaFrance, tell a friend that you need someone to help you through this time of year. Have that person check in more often, if need be, to keep your spirits up.
Read on for more ways to boost yourself out of the winter blahs.
#3: Watch your diet. "It's harder to eat healthy in the winter," says LaFrance, "and people eat more carbs, which just weigh them down." Carbohydrate cravings can be a symptom of the more severe seasonal affective disorder, but when you look at most of what we define as "comfort foods"—macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese, lasagna, chicken and dumplings—they're pretty carb-heavy. Carbs prey upon our brain's pleasure sensors, says Dr. Malone, which makes them enticing. But, at the same time, they can slow you down and make you feel lethargic. Work more organic fruits and vegetables into your diet, cooking up winter greens or using frozen fruits to make a post-workout smoothie. And find restaurants with healthy menus. "In the wintertime people eat out more—because you're stuck inside," says Dr. Malone, but with restaurants' high-fat fare, all that dining out could add up to weight gain, which will exacerbate your winter funk after you realize you've failed at that resolution to drop 30 pounds.
#4: Work out. Not surprisingly, exercise is a great antidote to the winter blues, says Dr. Malone, but getting motivated to strap on those running shoes can be hard when it's cold out. "Even a short brisk walk outside helps—or grab some cross-country skis," says LaFrance. "Even going to a gym is better than nothing at all." If even that is a challenge, recruit a friend to join you, or to remind you why it's important. Research has found that improving your overall outlook on life can be a better motivation to exercise than the goal of losing weight. So forget that resolution you made, and hit the gym because you know it will lift your spirits.
#5: Get more light into your life. Light therapy is often used to treat full-blown seasonal affective disorder, and it's just as effective at getting rid of mild seasonal depression, says LaFrance. Turn on a few more lamps in your office, raise the blinds if you have a window, and try to get outside during the middle of the day when the sun is out, particularly if it's dark both when you get to work and when you leave. Failing that, take a 1,000-IU vitamin D supplement. In addition to giving you the health benefits you're missing from lack of sunlight, there's some evidence that depression is linked to vitamin D deficiencies.
#6: Don't make life-changing decisions. While you think your winter doldrums may be due to your job, where you live, or a relationship issue, it's not a great idea to change any one of those things until you've had some time to think it over, says LaFrance. "If you're in a funk, it's not the best time to be making abrupt changes without weighing your options," she says. "Your problem solving may not be as clear as it normally is," she adds. Wait a month and see if you still feel the same way before making any major life changes.