Winter is coming!

As a native Texan, the earliest sunset I ever experienced growing up was right around 5:20 p.m. Not bad, but not great either. Growing up in Texas also meant that winter in general was not that cold. There might be a few weeks of chilly weather in the low 40s or 30s, and if we were lucky, the occasional snow. But overall, I grew up without giving a second thought as to how winter can affect someone’s mental health.

It was during the nine months I lived in Ljubljana, Slovenia that I experienced real winters and the toll they can have on your mental health. During my time abroad, I lived far away from my family, the sun set around 4:20 p.m. each day and the temperatures were a steady 32 degrees Fahrenheit for most days.

I specifically remember walking up the stairs at my aunt’s house right after night had fallen and feeling this sense of gloom wash over me. What was going on? Why was winter hitting me so much harder this year than in the past?

I realized I was experiencing symptoms similar to seasonal affective disorder (SAD). According to the Mayo Clinic, SAD “is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons … If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody.”

Although SAD affects about 10 million Americans, according to Psychology Today, another 10 to 20 percent are estimated to experience a more mild form of SAD. Some symptoms of SAD include fatigue, depression, irritability, trouble sleeping and loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed.

Although many Americans do not struggle with SAD on a yearly basis, there are other ways in which the winter months can contribute to a poor mental state. One of them is early sunsets. 

Not only do earlier sunsets reduce the amount of daylight we get to enjoy, it also means less vitamin D, which helps to regulate your mood. According to Insider, a vitamin D deficiency could contribute to depression.

One of the easiest ways to make sure you get enough vitamin D is to spend time in the sun. Even as little as 15 minutes three times a week between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. could be enough, according to the Mayo Clinic. In the winter time, when sunlight is scarce, a supplement is also an option, but speak to your doctor about this first.

Besides soaking up the sun, there are several other ways you can boost your mood if you’re experiencing the wintertime blues. 

What I found to be most helpful during my time in Slovenia was to surround myself with friends. Not acquaintances, or even my relatives (who I couldn’t speak to very well due to language barriers), but close friends. 

The friends I had in Slovenia were my life line. We were able to laugh and joke with each other, which lifted my spirits, but we also had deep, meaningful conversations, which fed my soul. 

I cannot stress the importance of community enough, especially when it comes to coping with the dreariness of winter. If facetime is your only option, use it! If shopping, coffee dates and movie nights are available to you, plan them!

I’ve found that when I’m stuck in my head feeling sad, anxious or lonely, simply talking to a good friend pulls me out of that funk.

Some other tips to improve your mood during the colder months are exercise (could be as simple as a walk), practicing gratitude, treating yourself to your favorite seasonal Starbucks (or local coffee shop) drink, baking (and maybe even decorating) cookies with a friend or family member, whipping up some mulled apple cider (or maybe just tea), lighting a fire and getting cozy or cooking up your favorite comfort meal.

There are also plenty of fun activities to do in wintertime that are not available during warmer months. For example, ice skating. The first time I went ice skating was actually in Slovenia, and I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to be a pro to have fun. There’s also the classic skiing, snowboarding and sledding.

If you prefer indoor activities, movies, TV shows and books are your friends, but don’t let them replace your real ones. Hosting a game night is also a great way to connect with others while staying warm, or even a game night over Zoom.

Figure out what works for you and what brings you joy. Lean on your community, and don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone if you start experiencing the winter blues.