Winter is Coming: Seasonal Affective Disorder and How to Cope

Dr. Thomas Vance is back with some tips on staying bright during the winter months, because as youth development staff we need to take care of ourselves so that we can show up fully for youth.

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” or is it? It is that time of the year again, and it seems like there are a lot of changes. From the leaves beginning to change, holiday activities are keeping us busy and even seasonal outdoor activities like fall walks and plans to see friends and loved ones, especially after a easing of COVID restrictions. However, with these changes the days get shorter, and the night comes sooner – which can often cause seasonal depression.

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Seasonal depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of recurrent major depressive disorder where episodes of depression occur during the same season each year. The most common seasonal pattern is for depressive episodes to appear in the fall or winter and may be related to changes in the amount of daylight a person receives.

Seasonal affective disorder is estimated to affect roughly 10 million Americans, often onsetting between 18 and 30, and can be experienced with different symptoms. Not everyone with SAD has the same symptoms, but, according to the DSM-5, symptoms commonly associated include the following:

  • Hypersomnia or a tendency to oversleep
  • Weight gain
  • A drop in energy level
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Irritability
  • Increased sensitivity to social rejection
  • Fatigue
  • A change in appetite

SAD symptoms tend to recur around the same time every year. They should not directly result from seasonal stressors (like being regularly unemployed during the winter). The causes for SAD are unknown, but there is some evidence that it is related to the body’s level of melatonin. This hormone regulates the sleep-wake cycle. As the winter days get shorter and darker, melatonin production in the body increases, and people often feel tired and more lethargic. 

Ways to Cope

Suppose you notice your mood decreasing during the winter months. In that case, there are ways to plan to boost your mood, like joining a social club, signing up for a regular activity, volunteering, developing good exercise habits, and even collaborating with family and friends in exercise. Other ways to cope are the following:

Talk with a professional

With the new age of teletherapy, counseling can help cope with change. Talking about how you are feeling with a professional can help you recognize patterns in your thoughts and feelings, and give some ideas for disrupting those patterns. Ask if your Club has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which may help cover the cost of a few sessions.

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Outside is Open

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, seasonal depression can sometimes be associated with a lack of Vitamin D. We can obtain Vitamin D through a balanced diet but being in the sunlight is the best way to raise your levels. Go outside and take a daily walk or drive to the nearest trail. If its not too cold, brunch on a sunny patio can also do the trick!

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Don’t you feel good when you give back? There are a variety of opportunities for all different interests. Connecting with others in your community who have a common interest can be therapeutic and fun. Consider doing this outside of your work at the Club for something different, or work with youth to plan a service project.

Food For the Soul

Shifting your diet to foods that are high in tryptophan help boost serotonin levels and keep your brain chemistry balanced. These foods include eggs, nuts, cheese, tofu, salmon, and pineapple.

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Get Moving

Do you know that gym membership you were holding off for your New Year’s Resolution? It might be helpful to get a jumpstart. Did you know that exercise or any type of movement increases endorphins? These feel-good chemicals reduce stress and pain. And if your schedule doesn’t allow for gym time, play a game of basketball with the teens at the Club. They’ll likely smoke you, but you’ll get that movement in nonetheless. 🙂

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The winter months can be difficult. To minimize the drop in mood, energy, and feelings of hopelessness this winter, take steps to connect with people, using video chatting by scheduling time to catch with family and friends. When the weather is warm enough, dress warm and go for a brief walk or sit outside and drink your favorite warm beverage. Don’t forget to get exposed to light. While you’re at home, keep blinds and curtains open if it’s not too cold, and turn lights on otherwise. Above all, pay attention to your mood. If you notice negative changes, it’s time to reach out or make a change and remember you are not in this alone.

Interested in programs that support youth emotional well-being? SMART Moves: Emotional Wellness Program is the perfect choice for starting the new year. These 10 sessions designed for youth in grades K-2, 3-5, and 6-8 focus on building the social-emotional skills of self-regulation, impulse control, and stress management. Read how this program made a huge impact at the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Tennessee Valley.  Use the SMART Moves: Emotional Wellness Teen Expansion Pack to integrate concepts of identifying emotions and self-regulation into your teen center programming. It’s got info on how COVID-19 is affecting teens, implementation tips, discussion activities, and more. Boys & Girls Club staff can download it now at

How do you beat the winter blues? What programming have you found most successful for supporting youth emotional wellness?  Let us know! Comment below, on the BGCA Youth Development Facebook page, or email

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