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Beat the winter blues

Young Dakota Living: With the short winter days, stave off SAD until summer comes back around.

Sarah McNaughton

December 29, 2023

5 Min Read
sad face drawn in snow
BLUE MOOD: The winter blues can set in as our circadian rhythm changes and less sunshine produces less serotonin, the “feel good” chemical.HuntImages/Getty Images

The short winter days and long nights really start to get to me about mid-January. The celebrations and excitement of Christmas and New Year’s have worn off, and we start to buckle in for the “real” days of winter to take hold.

There’s nothing I love more than the long, hot summer days in the Great Plains, and nothing I like less than these long, dark nights. The sun setting before supper makes the evenings feel especially long, which for some (like me) can lead the “blues” and a lack of motivation.

Often in the winter, I’m ready to head to bed at 6:30 p.m. and lack any energy to complete end-of-day tasks. Dishes pile up in the sink. Tending to the horses seems like running a marathon. Sitting on my couch watching Netflix is all I want to do.

Seasonal affective disorder, also referred to as SAD or seasonal depression, is no joke to those of us in the northland. Even if you spend the rest of the year with perfect mental health, experiencing the winter blues is something that affects around 10 million Americans each year, according to Boston University.

Symptoms of SAD often start in the fall, which can include:

  • sadness or feeling blue

  • tiredness and reduced energy

  • appetite changes and weight gain

  • oversleeping

  • difficulty concentrating

  • feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness or guilt

  • thoughts or considerations of suicide

According to the Mayo Clinic, less sunlight can really mess with our minds and bodies. Fewer rays in fall and winter muddles our body’s internal clock, which can lead to SAD. It also causes a drop in serotonin, which can trigger depression. Less serotonin disrupts the balance of melatonin, which can affect sleep patterns and mood. Lastly, less sunshine means our bodies produce less vitamin D, a source that boosts serotonin in our bodies.

Help yourself or a friend

Even without an actual diagnosis, you can take a few steps to stave off the winter blues:

Try therapy. Psychotherapy is an option to treat SAD, where a professional can help you learn healthy ways to cope with symptoms. An expert’s advice can also help you manage stress, build healthy habits and identify patterns of negative thoughts. Talk therapy can also help you to vent thoughts or frustrations to an unbiased individual.

Capture light. Mayo Clinic lists light therapy as one of its top methods to treat symptoms of SAD. I myself have a light box that sits on my desk, where I soak in the bright light in the mornings. Do I sometimes feel a bit like a houseplant with a grow light? Yes. But this light helps me more than anything else to build motivation and productivity in my daily routine. There are many options of light boxes available to purchase online, but even making sure to open home blinds to let the sunshine we do get in helps. Capitalize on those sunny winter days!

Consider medications or supplements. For people who experience severe symptoms, a prescription medication like Wellbutrin can treat depressive episodes, according to Mayo. As with all medications, keeping a close relationship with your doctor is key. I take a vitamin D supplement daily year-round since we already experience lower levels of this vitamin in our daily lives. The company Care/of helps me to take my vitamins consistently. I just grab my prepackaged dose for the day to swallow with my morning coffee at the same time each day.

Take time for self-care. Optimize your habits and environment to feel your best. Get yourself on a schedule as much as possible, helping yourself sleep better and fall into a routine. Having a similar bedtime and wakeup time each day can help you to prioritize quality sleep. For me, I have a full evening routine to get myself in the mindset for bed and rest, and a morning routine that helps me get ready for a productive day.

Customizing your routines to habits you want to encourage will help you have good self-care all winter long. Waking up and opening all the blinds in your home, drinking a big glass of ice water, taking the dogs for a walk, or even listening to a favorite podcast or playlist can all be a great part of your routine. Making time for your favorite activities is also important for a healthy balance — even in the dead of winter.

Socialize whenever possible. While this winter might be very mild compared to the blizzards we usually experience in the northland, it’s not always possible to travel to friends or get off the farm to town. Whether in-person or in a phone call, visiting with a loved one is a great way to stay connected and social through the winter months. Even if you don’t have a lot to say, my friend and I have a show we watch “together” over Facetime, so we can always have something to discuss.

When it comes to the less-than-pleasant feelings that affect so many of us, know that you’re not alone. While summers in North Dakota are second to none, the long winters can leave me and plenty of others feeling a little blue. Take a few proactive steps now to tide yourselves over for the winter still to come.

Don’t be afraid to reach out

Following the tips to offset seasonal affective disorder might not help everyone cope with their feelings of hopelessness or depression. Know when to reach out to a professional instead of trying to go it alone.

There are online mental health services that offer phone, video chat or even text therapy. Those include Better Help, Talkspace, ReGain and many more. Be sure to research which service best fits your needs or budget.

For a suicide and mental health crisis hotline, dial 988 for yourself or a friend.

Read more about:

Mental Health

About the Author(s)

Sarah McNaughton

Editor, Dakota Farmer, Farm Progress

Sarah McNaughton of Bismarck, N.D., has been editor of Dakota Farmer since 2021. Before working at Farm Progress, she was an NDSU 4-H Extension agent in Cass County, N.D. Prior to that, she was a farm and ranch reporter at KFGO Radio in Fargo.

McNaughton is a graduate of North Dakota State University, with a bachelor’s degree in ag communications and a master’s in Extension education and youth development.

She is involved in agriculture in both her professional and personal life, as a member of North Dakota Agri-Women, Agriculture Communicators Network Sigma Alpha Professional Agriculture Sorority Alumni and Professional Women in Agri-business. As a life-long 4-H’er, she is a regular volunteer for North Dakota 4-H programs and events.

In her free time, she is an avid backpacker and hiker, and can be found most summer weekends at rodeos around the Midwest.

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