Life & Culture

How to keep the blues at bay and stay happy during winter

The worsening weather means fewer activities and more periods of isolation but there are steps you can take to lighten up your outlook


Frustrated young lady sitting on sofa, cuddling pillow, looking away at window. Lost in thoughts unhappy stressed millennial woman regretting of wrong decision, spending time alone in living room.

The end of the festive season is drawing near, and soon we will be festival-free until Chanukah.

After Succot is over it is traditional to wish each other the Yiddish saying “a gut vinter” or its Hebrew equivalent “choref tov.” The summer days are now rolling away into darker, shorter ones. This time of year, many people feel their mood start to drop.

The worsening weather means fewer activities and more periods of isolation, which often brings an anti-climactic return to humdrum routine, feeling like it will never end.

Many people feel lethargic, irritable and moody.

At the severe end, this low mood can develop into a pattern that significantly interferes with daily functioning.

Some people are diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is defined as pervasive low mood that emerges with seasonal changes. SAD is commonly known as “winter depression,” but it can develop in response to any seasonal change.

Sometimes, although it’s more unusual, people feel lower when summer arrives. The causes of SAD could be linked to changes in light exposure, body clock rhythm, serotonin, and melatonin production.

Seasonal lowness is surprisingly common, with a recent study showing that one in 20 adults have been diagnosed with the condition. Twice as many men have been diagnosed with SAD, and more people in busy cities such as London suffer from the condition.

As with all mood difficulties, depression takes time to recognise and acknowledge, especially if it presents as irritability or anger outbursts. This means that it also takes time to recover.

In the meantime, relationships within the family often become strained, with either coldness or anger outbursts becoming more frequent. Mental illness in a family is such a painful and confusing issue to navigate, and it is often not just the person suffering who needs support because everyone is affected.

Naturally, we rely on non-verbal communication all the time, constantly interpreting others’ behaviour and using it as a prompt for our own responses. But when somebody feels down, their emotional reactions can stem from their lowness, and because of their pain, they often struggle to respond with high levels of relational awareness.

Family members are commonly at a loss of how to offer helpful support. And when they do, it is often difficult for the person who feels low to express appreciation or warmth in return.

I met a family once who were struggling with their father’s seasonal depression. The children felt a void in their lives that they could not describe.

The family decided to make a designated “meeting” time every evening for all family members to attend.

During this meeting, each family member took turns to describe how they were feeling, an appreciation of somebody who had helped them, and what they needed from everyone else in that next 24-hour period.

The younger children were encouraged to write ideas or thoughts and put them in a box, which the family read through during the meeting in case they had forgotten the feelings during the day.

Although these conversations were difficult at first, they soon became part of the routine. They gave the family an opportunity to understand each other’s emotional landscape and to communicate the emotional struggles that each of them were going through.

They felt more confident about supporting each other and not as confused about each other’s behaviour.

Treatment of SAD is similar to treatment of other depression. Behavioural changes, such as regular exercise, self-care, and increasing socialising, are helpful. Talking therapies are recommended, and if appropriate, so is medication.

Treatment can also include light therapy in which a specialised sun lamp mimics exposure to sunlight.

But wider distress in the family as well as the wider systems of support are often overlooked. Depression and other mental illness is still commonly seen as an individual pathology when in reality it is something that is a family experience.

Family members need more help to have supportive and explorative conversations about these sensitive subjects without blame and with compassion.

Then they can support both the unwell member and each other to navigate a difficult time of year. A gut vinter!

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