Dark Winter Days Have You Feeling Meh? This Free Therapy Skill Is the Perfect Antidote to the Winter Blues

Photo: Getty Images / ingwervanille
If it’s felt nearly impossible to get out of bed since the clocks turned an hour back in November, you’re definitely not alone. It’s natural to feel a bit sluggish and sad when the days are dark and cold. (They call it the winter blues for a reason, you know.) But that doesn’t mean you just have to wait it out for spring. Practicing behavioral activation, a therapist-approved technique for mitigating symptoms of depression, can help you lift your own spirits this winter.

To be sure, the winter blues aren’t the same thing as seasonal depression aka seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a mood disorder involving persistent sadness or exhaustion that occurs at the same time each year (typically in winter, though it can occur in summer, too). According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 5 percent of adults in the U.S. experience seasonal affective disorder (or SAD), and this can last for up to 40 percent of the year. And like any kind of depression, this is best treated with the support of a mental health professional.

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That said, if you’re currently feeling the winter blues or suspect you may have mild symptoms of SAD, behavioral activation can be a useful tool both inside and outside of therapy.

What is behavioral activation?

Behavioral activation, a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) skill that’s typically used to treat depression, can help us understand how our behaviors influence our emotions, and vice versa. It’s designed to help people break the cycle of depression—where you’re depressed and thus have no energy to do things (whether that’s socializing with friends, making time for your favorite hobby, or cleaning up around the house). Not doing things often makes you feel worse, reinforcing (or worsening) the depression symptoms, and the cycle continues.

When used correctly and compassionately, behavioral activation can help us to understand why we have sad or hopeless feelings during the winter, and how to change your behavior while not shaming yourself for your emotions. With some compassion, introspection, and hard work, behavioral activation can help you to feel at least a bit better than before.

Behavioral activation focuses on what you can control (your behavior), in spite of what you can’t control (the winter, well, wintering).

Two therapists who have used behavioral activation with their clients—Marielle Tawil, LMSW, and Caryn Sherbet, LMSW—agree that behavioral activation works because it allows us to find pleasure in mastering our everyday tasks. Sherbet suggests breaking down a large, looming task (like cleaning your apartment) to something that may feel more achievable in your current mental space (like wiping down your kitchen countertops). This will allow you to feel accomplished by working towards your overall goal, rather than helpless or daunted by the vastness of the larger task.

How does behavioral activation work for winter blues?

An important first step in behavioral activation, according to Sherbet, is to validate and accept your feelings (as well as you can) around possibly feeling like your capacity is lower than usual. It’s natural to feel frustrated by what you can’t accomplish, but any sort of progress towards completing a task is considered a win. Once you accept your feelings around this, choose the task that feels the least daunting, and slowly move forward from there.

This balance of being kind to yourself about what you can’t take on right now—while setting smaller, realistic goals about what you can accomplish—is exactly why behavioral activation is so great at stopping or slowing the winter blues. Tawil says that’s because behavioral activation focuses on what you can control (your behavior), in spite of what you can’t control (the winter, well, wintering). This is, of course, easier said than done, but any effort put towards achieving your goals is worth celebrating.

Tawil breaks down how she’s used behavioral activation in her therapy sessions:

  • Activity Scheduling: What are some tasks that are easy to accomplish and feel good to get done? What are some tasks that are satisfying to complete, but are tougher to accomplish?
  • Activity Structuring: When (what day and time) will you complete these tasks?
  • Problem Solving: What are the barriers to completing a task, and how can they be broken down?
  • Hierarchy Construction: Can you rank how easy tasks feel to complete, and complete tasks according to the ranking (easiest to hardest)?
  • Shaping: Continuing to build on healthy behaviors (and validating what you’ve done well!)
  • Reward: Feeling the pleasure felt by completing the tasks, no matter how tough!

How can I use behavioral activation in everyday life?

Again, if you think that you may have SAD or clinical depression, reach out to a mental health professional before trying behavioral activation on your own. That said, iIf you’ve caught a case of the winter blues or have mild symptoms of seasonal depression, there are some tips from behavioral activation that you can use day-to-day.

Sherbet recommends allowing yourself to feel your feelings about what’s stopping you from completing tasks, while also choosing an accomplishable task to complete as a compromise. For example, if you’re too depressed to leave your house, but you’d still like to see your friends, they suggest coordinating a phone or video call. (Best of both worlds, TBH.)

Sherbet adds that it’s okay if you can’t accomplish a task exactly to your usual standard; completing even part of a task is something to be proud of. Say you’re overwhelmed by the mountain of clean laundry sitting in the basket, waiting to be folded and put away. Absolve yourself from feeling the need to fold everything perfectly and maybe instead just sort your clothes by category, stuff them in a drawer, and call it a day.

Tawil recommends replacing behaviors that may feel unhealthy (ahem, exclusively bedrotting while scrolling TikTok all weekend) with behaviors that are healthier, but still provide the same sense of pleasure. What you’ll choose is up to you, but she recommends doing an art project, going for a walk, talking to a friend, or cooking a meal.

Tawil also suggests taking a look at your values. Are you trying to feel more joy throughout the day, connect more with others, or take on tasks with more ease? Once you narrow down your values, you can better understand how to act in order to achieve them.

If you’re still feeling the winter blues, fear not. The sun is officially setting later every day, February is the shortest month of the year, and the behavioral activation tips described above can help you through. When in doubt, remember to be kind to yourself! Even reading to the end of this article is a sign that you’re trying to push through the rut, and you deserve to be proud of that.

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