Winter blues is not a diagnosis but a general term and it means feeling sad and down, melancholic and unhappy and it´s related to the shortening of daylight hours and Autumn or Winter approaching. They are often linked to something specific, such as stressful holidays or reminders of absent loved ones.
On the other hand, Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of affective disorder related to changes in seasons. The symptoms usually start in Autumn and continue into the winter months, and go away during the sunnier days of spring and summer. The symptoms may include:
Winter blues are usually temporary and the symptoms disappear, while Seasonal Affective Disorder can last for several months.
The specific causes remain unknown, but some factors that may come into play include the changes in the circadian rhythm (your body´s internal clock), and a drop in the serotonin and melatonin levels.
Some people also change their activity when Autumn starts. Since it´s colder and darker outside, they find it more difficult to keep up with the activities they used to do and enjoy during Spring and Summer and so when they stop or reduce these activities, there is a drop in the dopamine levels too.
There is a direct link between the number of pleasurable activities that we do and the quality of our mood. Usually the happiest days of the week are the days where people do more pleasurable activities: the weekends. In the weekends we usually spend more time with friends, we read our favourite book, play sports, and do other activities that boost our mood. This also happens when we are on holidays. When we do pleasurable activities, we increase our dopamine levels.
Strategies to deal with the symptoms
Our mood is a result of imaginary scales, where we weigh the quantity and quality of negative and positive events. The days getting shorter, the reduction of sunlight hours and the worsening of the weather conditions may lead to the reduction of outdoor activities and therefore, the reduction of positive events. If we want to improve our mood, we will then need to increase the positive events and activities and reduce the negative events when possible.
The first step will be for us to choose the present and past activities, and the activities that we know will take a very low effort but will provide a high level of satisfaction. For example, we cannot start by going to the gym three times a week when we have never been to the gym before. It would be easier to play guitar first if we used to play guitar in the past (low effort, high satisfaction).
Second, we will need to focus on completing the time we set for the specific activity: E.g. Playing guitar for ten minutes, instead of focusing on the results (playing a full song perfectly).
The goal is overcoming the inertia, not to obtain outstanding results in our chosen activity. So even when we don’t achieve a perfect performance, we have met our goal (to stop the circle of loss).
Here are some other tips for you to beat the Winter Blues:
Remember: The more we do, the better or symptoms get, the more activities we include in our routines, the more dopamine we obtain, so the more activities we do, the less and less difficult gets to get going.
If after following these tips you still feel low and moody, CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) has been proven to be the most effective treatment for these symptoms. A qualified therapist can guide us to get through the Winter Blues symptoms.