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:

  • Feeling depressed
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Low energy
  • Problems with sleeping
  • Changes in your appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Having thoughts of death

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.

Usually the happiest days are those in which we make plans; weekends.

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 would then be to increase the number of activities that we used to do and go back to the activities that we stopped doing before we started to feel low. We may use our memories and our reason and leave our actual mood aside in order to complete the following table:

Difficulty Level of Satisfaction
Past Pleasurable Activities (Activities that we used to do but stopped doing)
Present Pleasurable Activities (Activities that we still do)
Future Pleasurable Activities (Activities that we never tried before but that we think we would enjoy)

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).

El círculo de la pérdida

Here are some other tips for you to beat the Winter Blues:

  • Waking up an hour early to benefit from the sunlight (So we increase our melatonin levels)
  • Our brain is usually very grateful when stimulated. As winter approaches, everything gets darker and colourless. Seeking a colourful life and exposing ourselves to those colours can stimulate our brains. For example, you can go outside to a place where there is grass and colourful buildings; you can watch videos full of colour.
  • Doing exercise: it is proven that exercise can increase our energy levels and reactivate our mind and body (we may need to start with low effort and high pleasurable activities and set very small goals to ourselves at first).
  • Trying not to anticipate the darkness. Being conscious of the present moment and enjoying the daylight hours as much as we can.
  • Being creative: Using these months to work on a goal that we set to ourselves can be a great motivation. It is important to start by taking very small steps towards that goal.
  • Another suggestion is to purchase SAD lights. They do not “cure” Winter Blues but have proven to improve our Melatonin and Vitamin D levels and therefore ease the symptoms.
  • Improving our diet. There are some foods that make us feel better. Eating foods with high amounts of tryptophan will naturally increase melatonin production. Tryptophan is an amino acid that our body does not produce naturally, but it is needed in the production of melatonin. Tryptophan can be found in most foods that contain protein, including almonds, oats, turkey, chicken, and cottage cheese. Also having a balanced diet and drinking lots of water can make us feel more energetic.
  • Last but not least, it is very important not to be hard on ourselves. There is an explanation for our symptoms, and putting lots of pressure or judging ourselves is not going to make the symptoms better. Positive reinforcement (giving ourselves nice treats) has been proven to be more effective than punishment (self-criticism).

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.

Marta Gray Nuñez
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Marta Gray Nuñez
Clinical and General Health Psychologist
Adults and couples
Languages: English and Spanish
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