Why do I feel SAD during Winter?
It’s the middle of winter, with rain or snow for weeks straight. Either your ground is a rudimentary ice skating rink, or a mud pit. The sun is becoming a distant memory and your patience with everything—including yourself—is wearing thin. You can’t quite identify what is making you feel glum, but you know that you are not feeling your typical optimistic self and something has changed.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
These uncomfortable feelings related to the winter season are what is categorized as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Yes, that is the acronym – SAD. How ironic (or not) is that?! It nearly feels like a “kick me while I’m down” label. But, at least it’s easy to remember?
During the winter months many of us, including myself, can become affected by the weather in a negative way. There is likely a biological reason that you feel less enthusiastic during winter months than you do during warmer times of the year. In comparison to summer, which has an average of more than 800 daylight hours (depending upon where you live); winter has half that amount of time at an average of 400 daylight hours.
Given the evidence of research that supports exposure to sunlight and natural elements as needed for higher performance and prevention of feeling down, it should come at no surprise that your feelings of less enthusiasm is warranted during winter.  However, this doesn’t also mean that a feeling of helplessness is needed during winter months. Thankfully, there are many options that may support your mental health, and potentially improve your quality of health.
My Experience with SAD and how I overcame it.
I spent the first portion of my upbringing in middle Tennessee where during the months of December until about late March there is hardly any sunshine. The ground is always soggy and muddy, and there may occasionally be a shocking snowstorm or two that inevitably invokes a run on milk, eggs, and bread at the grocery store and teasing from the northern states that we don’t know how to drive in snow. The grass is a dormant decayed brown color, trees have no leaves, and everyone who gardens waits with anticipation for the daffodils to spring up giving us all hope that winter is over soon. In my twenties, I began to notice that during the winter season I wouldn’t quite feel like myself; but having not studied mental health and wellness yet, I couldn’t pinpoint what was happening. I just knew the presence of winter meant that I was going to eventually start feeling down by about mid-January and there was nothing else to be done about it.
In year 2011 I moved to Western Canada, Alberta, and experienced my first true winter. I thought I would surely freeze to death and was relieved to find the cold was more tolerable than I had initially expected as long as I was able to put enough layers of clothing on. During that first year, the experience was magical. There was so much snow and such an extreme change in my environment that I didn’t feel my normal glum self in winter because there was much to explore and learn. By year three, the glimmer had worn off those glistening snowflakes and my home began to feel like a glorified bird cage. I now understood the definition of cabin fever.
With winter that lasts six months, and with surprise snow showers that were possible in summer; I eventually realized as a tactic of mere survival I had to learn new ways to cope with winter. My previous coping mechanism had been to simply ignore it as best as possible and “white knuckle it ’til it’s over”.
Because I couldn’t ignore half of the year, a list of new winter-time habits was born of these experiences from my desire to enjoy life instead of waiting around for the good parts to happen then ignore the rest. This information isn’t meant to diagnose or treat any medical condition, I’m simply sharing what I have learned to be quite helpful for my own mood during winter in case it may be of help to you. They’re easy-to-implement habits. The main challenge may simply come as a required mind-shift and willingness to try new things. But I am imagining that if you’ve read this far, you are definitely ready for a change! These tips are what I have discovered over the years of experiencing SAD, and rather than treating it with medication or white-knuckling through winter, I developed a short list of self-coping mechanisms that provide immense support and dare-I-say have brought me into an appreciation for the winter season.
STEP ONE to overcoming SAD: Identify the source making you feel SAD.
Now that we know less sunlight is most likely triggering the new, unexpected feelings of a low mood, there are ways to reduce it at the root origin.
Begin with the mental acceptance of what winter is; among the vast complexity of winter that we could spend an eternity exploring, a view of common sense can recognize that winter is a period of less sunshine to allow the plant life to rest, regenerate, and renew. When relating this biological idea to yourself; use this time of year as a season to rest, regenerate, and renew.
In my early gardening days, I had grown an apple tree from seed that was potted on my front porch awaiting it’s perfect spot in my yard. The first year it grew exceptionally, and I decided to protect it from winter by over-wintering it in my home, thinking this would allow the apple tree a longer growing season. The apple tree died because it was not given the necessary seasonal change of dormancy. It was in that moment I began to understand the importance of the winter season.
Give yourself time to slow down. Reflect on aspects of your daily life that you would like to bring more calm and peace into. Form a plan and directive that will help achieve the new balance you seek during winter.
Reflecting upon the more recent years of summers nearing the seasonal end, I will feel a sense of relief now knowing that winter is soon coming and it will be a time of rest and regeneration. Moving forward, shift your mind from the dread of winter to the new approach of viewing it as a time for renewal.
STEP TWO to overcoming SAD: Bring the outdoors in.
The five commonly known senses; smell, sound, touch, sight, and taste are how we interact with our environment. Luckily, each of these experiences can be brought indoors. One combination that you can try today is the blending of sound, scent, taste, and touch of nature. These four give a deepening immersive feeling of being among the outdoors, even when you are sitting at a workplace desk.
A very simple and incredibly helpful tool that I have discovered if spending time outdoors is impossible: bring the outdoors inside. When I was lamenting over how long the Canadian winters are, a friend wisely shared, “We bring the outdoors in.” For her, that meant installing outdoor playground equipment right in her living room for her small children to play on. Some homes also had climbing wall installations, or even trampolines! The idea is that you bring your favorite transportable outdoor activities indoors during winter to avoid the long period of waiting for the ground to clear again.
House plants are a quick way to fill your living space with greenery. Though, if you have a brown thumb or don’t like the idea of caring for a plant, visiting a botanical garden can provide a replenishing immersive experience of being outdoors while indoors.
An even simpler way to fill your home with the feeling of being outdoors is to play sounds of nature. Listening to sound recordings of the natural sounds can help provide a sense of peace and calm. Try listening to water flowing in a stream, natural bird sounds, or ocean waves to provide a sense of movement and natural flow.
The combination of smell and sound has become my absolute favorite for combating cabin fever in winter months when it is impossible to spend time outdoors. I begin by selecting a sound: flowing stream, ocean waves, or birds in nature. Then combine the sound with an essential oil: citrus for tropical exploration and ocean, floral for summer scents, or woodsy and earth tones for a clear mind and trip to the mountains.
I quite often use this smell/sound combo technique (even now as I write this) while typing and working from home at a computer regardless the time of year. Since typing on a computer is not easy to do outdoors, and my personal motto being, “time is better spend out-of-doors rather than in”; headphones, bird sounds, and essential oils support my ability to keep focus and direction.
STEP THREE to overcoming SAD: Go outdoors often.
Spending time outdoors is a critical step to make towards feeling better during the winter months. It may sound counter-intuitive, especially if you feel physically challenged by cold temperatures, but this is the time that we need to hold on tight to the phrase, “use it or loose it.” Because the days are filled with less hours of sunlight, this means that we need to be more intentional about our sunlight exposure, meaning: get more of it! When you notice the sun has finally shone through the seemingly endless days count of overcast grey cloud sky, in that moment make a concerted effort to treat yourself to the beautiful sunbeams.
As an example, when I lived in Western Canada, sun exposure many days looked like sitting in the sunniest window of my home allowing the sun-rays to pour in while comfortably avoiding the -30C (-22F) temperatures outdoors. When the temperatures had held at a constant -25C (-13F) and I no longer felt the window sunbath was sufficient, I invested the thirty minutes it took to bundle up in winter gear. I’d either take a quick walk around my neighborhood or feel like a kid again by sledding down the intentionally placed pile of soil to form the neighborhood sledding hill; then make a dash back indoors to warm up while appreciating the fresh air (albeit freezing fresh air!) that had just filled my lungs with the promise that this is just a season and there will be warm air before I know it.
Living in a climate zone that is seasonally colder than I personally prefer has taught me to appreciate change, accept that I cannot control everything, and find joy and happiness often (though I am much better at doing the opposite, but that is merely our human nature). These moments and season changes give us the tools to help shape our skill-set of finding positivity first; followed by acknowledging negativity without succumbing to it. It is okay to feel sad, but it is much better to not sit and wallow in it.
STEP FOUR to overcoming SAD: Use this time as a space to explore.
All year you have told yourself that when you have time you’ll explore that new hobby or new craft that you’ve been interested in learning more about. Use the slower calmer months of winter to do that exploration!
Sewing and crochet tend to be my two hobbies that have found their way into the category of winter month hobbies. As the temperatures drop outdoors, my interest increases for starting (or finishing last year’s) sewing and crochet projects. Finally take this time to begin those projects that you have told yourself month after month, “When I have more time I’ll….”
Often, if we have the metal habit of keeping a fast pace, the slower calm of winter can become monotonous. The habit of creating something new and exploring a new hobby that you are interested in will give your mind the sense of renewal that you crave during the calm and still winter months.
This is likely why my first winter in Canada didn’t leave me with a feeling of dread. There were so many new discoveries happening, winter didn’t have the same impact as it would in the following years once I had become more accustomed to the new surroundings.
STEP FIVE to overcoming SAD: Eat simpler foods and summer fruits.
This step may be one you’d like to skip over because during the winter we typically crave foods that are cooked, cream-based, and dense. In an act of desperation, and feeling trapped in my “frozen island” of a deep -30C (-22F) winter, I began to think more abstractly about the foods I was eating and the growing seasons that they relate to.
If you were to live in a tropical region where it is warm year round—and likely where you are dreaming of running away to right now—you would be consuming tropical summer fruits regularly. Bring those fruits to you—as frozen fruits!
The simplest way to eat more fresh summer fruits while living in a region of the world that is in frozen winter temperatures is by consuming frozen tropical fruits, not fresh. There is a specific reason behind the suggestion of frozen instead of fresh. If you have purchased a mango during January in North America, it is very possible that mango was not even close to tasting ripe. It definitely will not taste like the sweet summer mangoes that farmers in Mexico bless us with each year.
Tropical fruits that are frozen have been harvested very close to ripeness, the taste, vitamins, enzymes, and energy of that fruit will translate to your taste buds of the fond memories you have of summer time and warm weather. By feeding your body summer foods, your mind will feel more at ease with the fresh tastes signalling that winter season has come to an end. Our circadian rhythm keeps our minds deeply connected to the Earth and season changes.  Even when you have limited access to spend time among the trees and plants for viewing the changes of growth, the brain is keeping track of the seasonal changes automatically. 
Blending a smoothie with fully ripened summer fruit, dark leafy greens, and freshly grown sprouts for lunch can quickly transport your cells to the feeling of summer. These summer-time foods may quite literally trick your brain into forgetting that it is grey and cold outside. Simple ingredient foods can give you a mental and digestive break that is often craved during the peak of winter. It’s no coincidence that we set new exercise and health habits in January. Could it be this craving of new active habits is to help fill an energy void created by fewer sunlight hours? 
STEP SIX to overcoming SAD: Move by relocation.
Moving house is often much easier said than done, but if you find yourself in a place of being chronically sad and know that you have the ability to relocate – do it! I personally spent close to seven years in Western Canada, and while I could have stayed and made it my permanent home-place, I knew that my mental health would suffer so much that it was no longer possible to stay. Moving can be a huge financial and emotional burden, especially when leaving a place with beloved family and friends, but it is often that burden that we need to face and overcome to find peace and the priceless feeling of wellness.
In conclusion, if you are experiencing the feelings of a low mood and disconnect with nature during winter, it is valid. I hear often during winter from family or friends that they’re “in a mood” or “feeling abnormally anxious” and this is the first step to putting into action a plan for improving your mood. If you have the ability to notice that you’re feeling a bit off, then pin point what is causing this unbalanced feeling, which is one step further to improvement.
I hope that these suggestions will provide you with a sense of encouragement and you will continue to thrive through these winter months—without the winter blues! You can find me, during a rainy winter storm, typing at my computer while listening to the sounds of a stream flow and diffusing essential oils to transport my mind into a soothing place of greenery and flowers. Mid-January is already time to begin seed and garden planning which means my garden planner will again be at arms reach, you can also download a copy for yourself!