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Feeling the January blues? Here’s how to get through winter

January 17, 2023

Find out how to deal with January blues, or seasonal affective disorder, to endure the cold, gray weeks ahead.

Bare trees by a lake on a gray, foggy day
January in the northern hemisphere is usually a cold, wet, generally unpleasant time.Image: Moritz Frankenberg/dpa/picture alliance

Summer months: Spring-stepping and charged with energy, enjoying the sun, staying out socializing late into the evenings. Winter: Mornings all dopey and lethargic, lit only by the glow of electrical light. The bed and sofa beckon after dinner, offering comfy respite from the dark outdoors.

We're all a little bit sensitive to the seasons. Even if you're lucky enough not to suffer from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, it's still likely your daily habits change.

But for those who do suffer from SAD, or lighter versions like January blues, winter dips go deeper. People with SAD experience mood swings, a lack of excitement or joy, intense drowsiness and fatigue. The effects can be detrimental, not least on relationships with your partner, family members and friends.

Do you feel SAD?

SAD has been recognized as a psychiatric disorder since 1984. It's characterized by depressive symptoms, manifesting behaviorally as social isolation, increased appetite, longer sleeping.

But it also feels dreadful — triggering irritability, social timidity, and lack of motivation or concentration that can render one inert, making joy feel like a distant memory.

While anyone can be affected by it, it's particularly common in people already suffering from disorders like depression or anxiety, or those who suffer from physical illnesses like headaches and rheumatism.

A child enjoys winter sledding
Getting outside on the rare bright winter days can help relieve SAD symptoms. Finding ways to release the inner child helps to rediscover some happiness too.Image: Felix Kästle/dpa/picture alliance

What causes SAD?

Scientists don't really know what causes SAD. It's possibly an evolutionary hangover related to the innate mammalian behavior of bedding down for the winter, something akin to a psychological hibernation that's gone pathological.

In terms of what happens in the body, the so-called serotonin theory is a commonly cited cause of SAD. It's hypothesized that less serotonin is produced during the winter months from lack of exposure to sunlight.

Lower serotonin is often said to cause low moods and depression, but experts say this is an erroneous oversimplification that misses much of the complexity of how neurotransmitters and emotions interact.

Other studies suggest people with SAD overproduce melatonin — a hormone that maintains the normal sleep-wake cycle. Different researchers have shown that vitamin D deficiency might also be an issue for many who suffer from SAD.

But it's unclear exactly how common these deficiencies are to all people with SAD, or how they cause such a wide array of symptoms in the body.

How to deal with SAD

Studies show light therapy can help many people with SAD — 30 to 60 minutes per day of exposure to specialized lamps with the full visibile light spectrum has been shown to instantly lift the mood in those with SAD. However, the results are temporary and don't tackle the root causes. 

Talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or counselling can help get to the root causes of depression. And for more serious forms of the illness, medications like antidepressants are also sometimes recommended by clinicians, usually in combination with therapy.

Snow on the island of Sylt with the sun in the background
Winter sun is nice. But if it doesn't come out for days, specialized light therapies can help relieve SAD symptoms. Image: Stefan Arendt/imagebroker/picture-alliance

Lifestyle changes work to relieve SAD

There are also variety of lifestyle measures that can really help relieve melancholy and apathy, particularly for less extreme SAD, or for those who simply have the January blues.

Here is a list of things that could help:

  • Relaxation, mindfulness and meditation techniques. They can help lower stress levels, a contributing factor of SAD. Even a couple of minutes a day of dedicated meditation, helps mental well-being and builds self-awareness.
  • Brave the outdoors, especially on rare bright winter days. Tramping around in the drizzle can help, too, even if the greater pleasure is the reward of getting home afterwards.
  • Keep the exercise up, even if it's just simple stretching exercises. It'll be good for your sleep cycle, too.
  • Get socializing. It can be tempting to hermit away when you have SAD but keeping up social contacts with friends and family will help get you out of your shell.
  • Taking vitamin D supplements might be of some help, too, but they won't do much without accompanying lifestyle changes.

Edited by: Carla Bleiker

DW journalist Fred Schwaller wears a white T-shirt and jeans.
Fred Schwaller Science writer fascinated by the brain and the mind, and how science influences society@schwallerfred