Learn how to manage seasonal depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) by practicing coping skills that can help build a more positive relationship with the cold winter months.
The leaves are falling, the days are colder, and the nights are earlier. For many, these are just some of the dread-inducing signs that difficult times are rolling in. Depending on where you live, seasonal depression can feel like straight-up suffering half the year or more.
While winter may never carry the sunny joys of summer, hopefully this guide can provide you with a few ideas to build a more tolerable relationship with the colder, darker days.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or seasonal depression, describes a pattern where mood worsens around a specific time of the year, usually fall or winter. It isn’t an official diagnosis, but it can be part of diagnoses like depression and bipolar—meaning, the symptoms of these experiences seem to worsen in certain seasons.
The causes of seasonal depression are not exactly understood, and it’s likely a complicated biological mix involving serotonin, melatonin, Vitamin D, among other things. For this reason, you’ll often see the following treatment suggestions:
Antidepressants, or medication that alters neurotransmitter behavior in the brain.
Light therapy, or the use of technology like “happy lamps” which may mimic some of the benefits of natural light.
Vitamin D supplements, to help make up for the lack of this vitamin during the months that aren’t so sunny.
These can be useful interventions, and definitely something you may discuss with your therapist, doctor, or prescriber. This guide will focus less on biological remedies and more on supplemental activities you may try, to target the negative narratives and associations built with winter. A reminder that these are not replacements for medication or other medical advice—just more tools to try out.
Coping Strategies for Seasonal Depression
If anywhere in the world knows about dark, cold winters, it’s Scandinavia. With nights that can last 18+ hours in deep winter and temperatures consistently dipping below freezing, countries like Norway, Sweden, and Denmark have developed deeply ingrained cultural coping strategies for seasonal depression out of necessity.
Scandinavian terms hygge, koselig, and mys all have their own specific meanings and origin, but their essence is similar: Finding coziness, warmth, and togetherness in the cold season. Rather than highlighting the misery of the season, hygge, koselig, and mys indulge the contrast between the cold darkness outside with the warm comfort inside.
Here are some ideas for building your own personal “hygge.”
1. Create a comfort nest.
Gather your material comforts—blankets, pillows, big socks, candles, oversized hoodies, your tea stash, a space heater or electric fireplace. Prepare a space that represents coziness and warmth.
Once you have your nest set up, take a moment to mindfully notice the sensations associated with this space. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and take notice of each of the following:
The softness of your clothing;
The warmth of your heat source;
The scent of your candle;
The feeling of your body being held by blankets and pillows.
Finally, you might take a moment of gratitude for any of the material comforts and amenities that keep you warm, sheltered, and secure.
2. Schedule indoor activities with friends and family
Part of what makes winter so brutal is the feeling of isolation when there’s “nothing to do.” Summer activities may be on pause, but maybe there are indoor activities you have yet to discover. Some ideas:
Plan a weekly dinner, where you and your loved ones collaborate on a meal.
Hold a regular game night, where you and others come together to play a board game, video game, or tabletop RPG.
Have a friend join you for a couch-evening, where you get cozy and watch movies or TV together.
Host a craft or art night.
3. Get out there, despite the cold
Depending on how much there is to do in your area, you might trying bundling up and braving the cold dark to get out of the house and connect with some new, novel experiences. Having new things to do can help us step out of the “is-it-over-yet” mentality and give us experiences to look forward to. Mark your calendar to help your brain see that you’re staying busy, and consider some of these ideas:
Concerts, shows, and comedy
Classes or workshops in something you’re interested in
4. Enjoy how different nature looks in the winter
Winter has its own beauty, unique in every place.
Here in Washington, winter can be a particularly special time of year, especially if you travel out to the forests and mountains. It’s serenely silent with the snow muffling all noise. Alpine lakes are frozen over. The only movement you can see is snow falling and gray jays. The smell of evergreens. Trails are quiet and uncrowded, and can feel like an entirely new place from the one you visited during the summer.
Wherever you live, you can begin to build an appreciation for the season of winter by mindfully connecting to nature outside. Bundle up, pack a hot thermos, choose a nature location, and while there, take time to notice:
The things you can see, maybe even taking photos of the things that stand out to you;
The things you smell, whether they are familiar or new scents;
The different sounds, or focusing on the unique silence that winter offers;
Your sense of touch, whether that’s noticing how warm you feel in your coat, or noticing the new feelings of cold ground or snow;
Anything you can taste (you remembered that hot thermos, right?)
5. Make a winter-day playlist
Music is really good at helping us sink into a particular pace.
Stardew Valley—a video game that simulates the life of building your own cozy farm—illustrates this fact beautifully with ambient music that changes based on the season. Spring’s songs sound like waking up, stirring, and starting something new. Summer is lively, busy, upbeat. Fall is contemplative, a slowing down. And winter is delicate and glass-like, frigid and still.
We can use playlists to stir a feeling, and you might try creating a winter playlist that helps you connect with the slow pace and warm vibes of winter. Ambient soundtracks, cozy coffeeshop indie, atmospheric metal genres, holiday music (polarizing, I know)…whatever resonates with you and adds appreciation to slowing down.
6. Find your “Winter-You”
Often, our identity flourishes in the warmer months with outdoor activities, festivals, vacations, and everything else that keeps our calendars lined. But when life slows down and creates these long gaps, what other parts of yourself might you now have time and space to connect with?
Is this a time to focus on writing music? To practice art? To explore new recipes and your culinary abilities? To find a hot yoga studio? To crochet, craft, collage, write, bake, read, woodwork, embroider, anything that keeps you and your mind feeling renewed, creative, and engaged.
And you know what? It doesn’t even have to be “productive.” Maybe Winter-You just revels in having fewer plans and having more times to be with your cats, your Netflix, your video games, your rest.
7. Practice sitting with the stillness
Slowing down is a natural and necessary season of life, something that all of nature participates in. But stillness can be really hard to sit with.
For some people living with anxiety or anything else that causes them to be on high-alert, stillness can be uncomfortable or even feel unsafe. With ADHD, stillness can be extra hard. And then if you're living with depression or anything else that causes lethargy, stillness can feel like a more-of-the-same trap—there’s nothing stimulating, mobilizing, or engaging happening.
This is why it's so important to find "stillness" that fits you. Sure, it might look like sitting on a pillow in meditation. It can also be a quiet walk outside, reading a book, yin yoga, or doing art. Your version of stillness doesn't have to look like anyone else's and it doesn't have to be literal. It's really just a practice of tolerating the quiet when the world slows down.
Mindfulness is a great tool for this. It’s the practice of observing our thoughts, feelings, and sensations without trying to change them, and that in itself is a form of stillness. It teaches us a relationship of acceptance with all experience—the warm and the cold, the light and the dark, the fast and the slow.
If physical stillness is hard, try a mindful walk or yoga. If you're okay with sitting still, explore some guided meditations on YouTube and choosing one that feels like a fit for you, and build upon that practice over time through repetition.
This article is written for the sole purpose of providing information on mental health topics. It is not a substitute for professional mental health counseling, diagnosis, or treatment, and should not replace or alter any treatment or care you are receiving without direct consultation from your mental health or medical providers. Any questions regarding your treatment should be brought directly to your professional and medical practitioners.