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Winter Days Don't Have to be SAD

Dark falls quickly in December. Learn how to look on the bright side.

dark winter afternoon with lights glowing in an apartment building

In the Northern Hemisphere, December days start out short and get shorter. The shrinking hours of daylight can make people feel blue. There’s even a condition called SAD – seasonal affective disorder. 

“You wake up and it’s dark. Then it’s dark again at 5. It really takes a toll on you,” said Annette Nunez, a Colorado-based psychologist.

This winter, the burden of the global pandemic adds to feelings of isolation, cold and dark.

For people coping with a rare or chronic illness, the shorter days can be especially challenging. But Nunez encourages patients to take on dark days with determination and creativity. With some effort, you can reframe how you view the winter months, she said.

As you turn back the clocks, dial up feelings of comfort, she said. Instead of focusing on cold, darkness and loss of social interaction, embrace winter as an opportunity for self-care.

“Think about what is positive about staying inside. We are resting and rejuvenating ourselves and doing things for ourselves, making soup and watching Netflix,” she said. “Think about blankets that are soft, candles that smell good, that hot cup of tea in your hand.”

Norway, where there are only a few hours of light a day in winter, consistently lands in the top five nations in the World Happiness Report. That may be because Norwegians lean in to winter, looking forward to koselig, loosely translated as “cozy time.”

Picture a merry blaze in the fireplace, light-reflecting crystals on lamps, and candles shimmering throughout the house. People sit outdoors whenever they can, bundled up in blankets. They treat themselves to waffles.

How can you tap into that frequency? Nunez said it helps to give structure to at-home days. Keep up with medications, therapies and routine care. She also recommends sitting down each Sunday night and making a list of attainable daily goals, the mundane stuff folks tend to let go when they are feeling down.

“Take a shower every day. Listen to a song that makes you happy every day,” Nunez said. “Get up at 8 o’clock every morning. Go for a five-minute daily walk.”

Keep that Sunday night list handy and cross off what you’ve done, she said.

“Writing makes you accountable for your actions. When you see those check marks, you will feel a sense of accomplishment,” Nunez said.

About 5% of Americans nationwide are impacted by Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, a form of depression linked to shorter days, according to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health. The further away from the equator you are, the greater the risk for SAD. NIMH notes that about 1% of people who live in Florida suffer from SAD, while 9% of people in New England and Alaska are impacted.

Get help if you have symptoms that include feeling sad, having low energy, sleep problems and thoughts of self-harm, according to NIMH.

For SAD, doctors sometimes recommend sitting in front of a light therapy box first thing in the morning. The box gives off bright light 20 times greater than indoor light, said Nunez, who herself uses a light box as the days grow shorter. Be sure to talk to a doctor before using light therapy to understand possible side effects.

Learn more about the cozy Norwegian concept koselig.