How to Beat Winter Blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

When all that’s left of the fa-la-la-la-las is rock-hard fruitcake, the winter blahs creep up, settle in, and hang around until spring.  Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, the Savvy Psychologist, has 8 tips on how to deal with the blues and their more serious cousin, Seasonal Affective Disorder. 

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #9

Tip #3: Drink coffee.

A huge study followed 51,000 American women for 24 years and found, among many other things, that as coffee consumption went up, risk of depression went down.  The women who drank the most coffee—4 or more cups a day—had the lowest risk of depression.  The researchers were careful to say that the research was too preliminary to start recommending caffeine as depression inoculation, but in the dead of winter, the stimulation (and warmth) of a good latte can’t be a bad thing.

Nutrition Diva agrees. Check out her episodes Is Caffeine Bad for You? and Can Green Coffee Help You Lose Weight? for more on the benefits of coffee.

Tip #4: Wash your hands.

This seems an odd way to improve your mood, but you’re more susceptible to depressive symptoms after a viral illness, and handwashing is the best way to avoid the cold or flu (besides a flu shot, which you should also get).

Tip #5: Socialize.

Social support is one of the best buffers to all kinds of mood problems, but I know, I know - when you have the winter blahs, the last thing you feel like doing is hanging out.  If nothing else, throw a Winter Doldrums party, wear your best Snuggie, and make your friends come to you. 

See also: Dinner Party Etiquette: How to Be a Good Host


3 Tips to Beat SAD

In addition to all of the above, here are 3 extra, supercharged tips to battle true SAD:

Tip #1: Talk to your doctor about a lightbox.

For SAD sufferers, a lightbox is the treatment of choice and works for 80% of patients.  One study even showed improvements after just one hour of treatment—near-immediate effect.  The consensus is 30 minutes with a high-quality lightbox when you first wake up.  While this can be a time suck, it’s 30 minutes well spent.  Simply sitting in front of the light will trigger a cascade of changes in your brain and re-set your body clock.  Talk to your doctor about a possible prescription.

See also: Technology to Help You Sleep


Tip #2: Negative air ionization.

I admit, I was skeptical about this one at first, but it checks out.  A negative ion is an atom or molecule that has gained an electron.  Negative air ions are generated naturally by moving water—there’s a higher concentration at waterfalls, the beach, and even in your shower.  Germane to our topic, summer air, but not winter air, has a high concentration of negative ions.  A study in the prestigious American Journal of Psychiatry found that high-density negative air ionization during sleep led to a 50% improvement in SAD symptoms in about half the participants—not as many as with bright light, but a breakthrough non-drug treatment nonetheless.

One thing worth your skepticism is the resulting avalanche of negative air ionization products out there—bracelets, air purifiers, even lightboxes with negative ionization built in.  Unfortunately, most negative air ionizers emit too few ions to do anything for your mood.  The generators in the study had a flow rate of 450 trillion per second, much higher than most products on the market.  Machines that match the ones used in the study are out there, though; just read the fine print.

Tip #3: Consider traditional depression treatments: medication and therapy.  

On the medication front, Wellbutrin, which has a reputation for being energizing, has been approved by the FDA for treating SAD.  Talk to your general practitioner or psychiatrist about this option.  On the therapy front, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can address the unhelpful beliefs and habits—like withdrawing from a winter social life—that may go along with SAD, and may act as inoculation for future winters.  Find a qualified psychologist you like and trust.

So there we have it; 8 tips to beat the winter blahs and the more serious Seasonal Affective Disorder.  Snowmageddon will be no match for you.


Dolvin, S.D., & Fernhaber, S.A. (2014).  Seasonal affective disorder and IPO underpricing: Implications for young firms.  Venture Capital, 16, 51-68.

Kurlansik, S.L. & Ibay, A.D. (2012).  Seasonal Affective Disorder.  American Family Physician, 86, 1037-1041.

Lucas, M., Mirzael, F., Pan, A., Okereke, O.I., Willett, W.C., O’Reilly E.J., et al.  (2011).  Coffee, caffeine, and risk of depression among women.  Archives of Internal Medicine, 171, 1571-8.

Peiser, B.  (2009).  Seasonal affective disorder and exercise treatment: a review.  Biological Rhythm Research, 40, 85-97.

Reeves, G.M., Nijjar, G.V., Langenberg, P., Johnson, M.A., Khabazghazvini, B., Sleemi, A., et al. (2012).  Improvement in depression scores after 1 hour of light therapy treatment in patients with seasonal affective disorder.  Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 200, 51-55.

Roecklein, K., Wong, P., Ernecoff, N., Miller, M., Donofry, S. Kamarck, M., et al.  (2013).  The post illumination pupil response is reduced in seasonal affective disorder.  Psychiatry Research, 210, 150-158.

Terman, M. & Terman, J.S. (2006).  Controlled trial of naturalistic dawn simulation and negative air ionization for seasonal affective disorder.  American Journal of Psychiatry, 163, 2126-33..

Woman in winter and winter blues images courtesy of Shutterstock.


Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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