It’s normal to feel a little down when the days are shorter and we see less of the sun. But when those feelings don’t let up, it's time to get help.
Almost 27 inches of snow in a single weekend. Temperatures swinging from 60 to 0 and back again. Oh, and rain—plenty of rain.
Between short, virtually sunless days and that universally despised form of precipitation known as “wintry mix,” even a so-called “mild” winter in New York City can be...well, trying. And though depression can strike in any season, many people find that having to spend a lot of time bundled up indoors triggers feelings of profound sadness and lethargy.
On a recent drizzly afternoon when we felt like we could use a boost, NYU Stories checked in with Rebecca Whiting, the Student Health Center’s assistant director for counseling, wellness, and sexual assault response, for some advice on how to fend off the winter blues, as well as tips for self-care in any season.
KNOW WHEN TO SEEK HELP.
It’s normal to feel a little down in the winter, when the days are shorter and we see less of the sun. “That can affect your brain chemistry and can make you feel sad or tired,” Whiting explains. But when those feelings don’t let up, she says, and begin to interfere with your life, that could be a sign of Seasonal Affective Disorder—a subtype of major depression that only manifests during a particular time of year. For the vast majority of folks, that means feeling the symptoms of depression in the winter months, though for some people spring and summer are actually the troublesome seasons.
Here are some signs to look out for:
-feeling down or depressed
-having low energy
-loss of interest in things
-withdrawing from friends
-feelings of guilt
-trouble sleeping (or, as often is the case with winter depression, sleeping way too much)
-changes in appetite (especially dramatically increased appetite in the winter)
“Normally, what you want to do in the winter is cozy in and sleep, eat, and comfort yourself,” Whiting says. “But when that gets to an extreme place, it might be something you want to talk to a counselor about.”
Not sure how to interpret what you’re feeling? Whiting suggests a visit to NYU's Counseling and Wellness Services, which is open to all students and offers walk-in hours most days. “You can come in and meet with someone—maybe even just one time, briefly. It’s not a huge commitment.” A counselor will work with you to make a plan and stick with it for as long as you need to feel better. “For each person it’s totally different,” Whiting explains. “Some people respond really well to light therapy, while others need medications or respond more to behavioral changes—like getting engaged with your friends and family in a different way, or changing your eating habits and exercise routine.”
For more on recognizing signs of depression in yourself and others, consult this guide. And if you experience a feeling that you just can’t go on, or thoughts of death or suicide in any season, call the Wellness Exchange (212-443-9999) immediately.
LET THE SUN SHINE IN.
It’s not 100% clear where Seasonal Affective Disorder comes from, Whiting explains, though many scientists believe that chemical changes in the brain when we don’t have access to light in the daytime contribute to feeling glum. Bundling up to catch a few rays on your lunch break might help—and many doctors prescribe light therapy, which has you sitting in front of a special lamp for 15- to 30-minute intervals at certain times throughout the day. “It’s one of the remedies that’s been shown to be really effective,” Whiting says. A doctor or counselor can set you up with the right kind of light and tell you when and how often to use it.
EXERCISE WHEN YOU CAN. NO MARATHONS REQUIRED.
Being active outdoors comes with a lot of sadness-busting benefits: In addition to the exercise, you’re also getting fresh air and vitamin D from the sun, and your mind’s engaged with the changing scenery. But on frigid days when you can’t bear to face the windchill, don’t beat yourself up. “Working out on the treadmill isn’t worse,” Whiting says. It might not be as exciting, but by hitting the gym, you still burn calories, strengthen muscles, and boost your endorphins—and with them your mood.
And if even the gym seems like too much of a hassle for the winter months, you can still squeeze in physical activity by taking the stairs instead of the elevator and setting alarms (or using apps) to remind you to get up from your desk and, say, take a stroll inside your building, or make a quick trip to say hello to a friend or colleague on another floor. The goal for keeping your spirits up in the gloomy season is to work in just 20 to 30 minutes of physical activity per day, and you can be creative about what counts. “A lot of New Yorkers already get that, because you’re running to the subway and walking to classes,” Whiting says. So wear layers and relish that brisk commute!
EAT YOUR VEGGIES.
There’s a reason many of us crave carbs and sugar in the winter: Comfort foods are called that because they can “boost chemicals in our brain that make us feel better,” Whiting explains, but notes that if you overdo it, the effect reverses. “When you’re doing that consistently over a long period of time, it can make you feel really crappy.” The solution is to eat as wide a variety of foods as you can, so you’re getting as many nutrients as possible. So though you might go for the mac & cheese some days, also try to work in lots of fruits and vegetables—especially “dark leafy greens, which are really nutrient-dense,” Whiting says. (Hayden’s dining hall has some great options for veggie novices who aren’t sure where to start.)
MAKE PLANS WITH FRIENDS. NETFLIX COUNTS.
When you notice yourself drifting down the path to winter (or anytime) sadness, it’s time to reach out to friends and family. Staying connected can both cheer you up and provide a network of people who care about you and can help you if your depression worsens, Whiting explains.
The trouble, of course, is that the thought of social activity can be exhausting when all you want to do is curl up under a warm blanket. That’s why Whiting suggests starting small. “When you’re dealing with weather that’s rainy and cold, you don’t have to go out and do big active things—you just want to stay in touch in some way.” That can mean having some friends over to watch a movie, or making time between classes to call a friend from home. “The trick is not to make it so difficult that you’re stressing out about your own self-care,” Whiting says. “Set small goals in advance, like a phone call or even a text. Reaching out even in small ways can really make a difference.”
LEND A HAND TO OTHERS IN NEED.
It sounds corny, but it works. “There’s lots of research to show that when you engage in helping others, it actually helps you feel better too,” Whiting explains. So help a friend move, offer to pitch in on a neighbor’s home improvement project, or sign up to volunteer with a local organization. (You can get started by going to the Local and Global Service site.)
SET ASIDE TIME FOR SELF-CARE, WHATEVER YOUR MOOD.
Stay engaged in your hobbies, when you’re stressed and when you’re not. Find out if you enjoy relaxation exercises, yoga, or meditation. Having a regular routine to return to when you need comfort can be really helpful if you find yourself slipping into a sad period, Whiting says. “Doing those things right away can help prevent it from getting worse.”