How To Prevent Seasonal Depression

It may only take a few lifestyle changes.

Boston winter

Hey Boston, winter is coming. Winter photo via Shutterstock

No matter how much you love to ski (or drink hot chocolate in the lodge), you probably prefer spring and summer to a New England winter. With constant dark skies and frigid temperatures from November to March, it’s understandable if your mood and energy are noticeably lacking during the winter. But, you may have an even bigger problem: seasonal depression.

Michael Miller, a Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor and a senior editor at Harvard Health Publications, says seasonal depression is largely caused by lack of light during the winter months. “It’s just easier in the summertime than the wintertime,” he says. “The other part of it is probably linked to our biology. There are actually cells in our brain that respond to light, and these are cells that keep us on that daily rhythm. The darker it is, we have a tendency to want to sleep more, we have less energy, that kind of thing.”

Miller notes that seasonal depression ranges in severity from very mild—those who simply dislike winter—to quite severe, at which point medication or therapy may be necessary. Although exactly what makes someone more likely to get severe seasonal depression is unknown, Miller says it may be hereditary. “There is some evidence that it’s genetic. There’s this gene called the clock gene, which actually controls our responses to light and that also controls our biological clock,” he explains. “For some people, they may have a variant that makes them more vulnerable to have mood changes when it gets darker.”

Anyone wondering if he or she fits that description should play it safe and see a doctor, Miller says. As for those who struggle with minor forms of seasonal depression, lifestyle fixes like these may be all it takes:

See the light. “Get as much light exposure as you can,” Miller recommends. “The real issue is you want to have bright light exposure to our eyes. That’s where the light-brain connection is made.” People who struggle more intensely may want to invest in a light box that mimics natural sunlight and sit in front of it for half an hour in the morning, Miller says.

Rise and shine. When it’s cold and dark, we’re naturally inclined to want to hibernate winter away—but Miller says to fight the urge. “I think the easiest thing to do is to try to stay active and try to resist the temptation to hunker down in the wintertime,” he says.

Stick to your routine. Just because the seasons have changed doesn’t mean your routine should. Miller says sticking to your normal schedule can help regulate your moods, too. That means following your normal diet, fitness regimen, and sleep schedule as much as possible.

Get moving. “Exercise can kickstart you, so even taking a brisk walk is probably a good idea,” he says. “You can get some kind of simple exercise machine to use, too.” In other words, walking your morning commute, even when it’s cold, may be an even better idea than you thought.

Try alternative therapies, but don’t rely on them. Miller says things like herbal supplements, vitamins, and St. John’s Wort “can’t hurt you,” but they aren’t fail-safe, either. “There’s nothing wrong with things like St. Johns Wort and the like, but if you’re going to try to keep your mood up by staying healthy, trying to have a broad based approach is more effective than doing one thing,” he says.

If all else fails, use those vacation days. “If you have the money, you can always go to Florida or Arizona,” Miller suggests. “As you go further south, the days are longer. You don’t want to go to Finland if you’re vulnerable.”