January 12, 2021

Brightening up the winter blues

Learn effective ways to combat feelings of sadness and depression during the cold and dark winter months.

When many people are already experiencing increased isolation, the winter season might feel daunting with more time inside and less sunlight. Matthew Holve, MD, a Kaiser Permanente psychiatrist, has advice for how you can boost your mental and physical wellness, stay motivated, and lift your spirits.

Feeling down versus seasonal affective disorder

First, it’s important to understand the difference between temporary feelings of sadness versus seasonal affective disorder, clinical depression, or anxiety. It’s common to feel a bit down or unmotivated during the darker winter season. It’s when these feelings interfere with your ability to do everyday activities that you should seek help.

“A mental health disorder is when you experience functional impairment,” said Dr. Holve. “If you start to see significant changes in your sleep, appetite, attention, or your ability to work, medical attention is needed.”

Glass half full 

While infectious disease experts agree that staying home — not traveling and not gathering — is the best way to protect yourself and those you love from COVID-19 this winter, it’s important to look on the bright side and not focus on what you are missing.

“There’s evidence that practicing gratitude increases happiness,” Dr. Holve said. “People who appreciate the good in their lives begin to perceive situations positively instead of as a loss.”

Express thankfulness to others, journal your appreciation, and try to find positivity in the challenges you face.


It’s the buzz word of the times, but self-care can be very effective at alleviating negative thinking and elevating mood. Dr. Holve recommends carving out time daily to do something you love and doing it with intention.

“Don’t think about your relaxation as wasted time,” he said. “Instead, dedicate time to relaxing or doing an activity you like, and enjoy it.”

For those who want to explore meditation or want to try relaxation exercises, digital tools such as Calm or myStrength are available to Kaiser Permanente members at no cost.

Be social, virtually

Finding meaningful ways to connect while physically distancing is incredibly valuable. Reach out to friends and family, leverage technology to see each other’s faces, and be an active listener.

Supporting others, making connections, and having a laugh together can give you a sense of purpose and lift your spirits.

Stay engaged with exercise and activities

Exercise is important when improving mental health, but don’t take on a New Year’s resolution approach. Start with small, practical goals. For beginners, shoot for a few short walks a week, or do some gentle stretching for 5 to 10 minutes a day. If successful at this, then move on to more ambitious goals. Unrealistic expectations are a formula for failure, which can lead to negative associations with exercise.

This is also true when beginning a new hobby. Dr. Holve said dedicating just 5 minutes a day to a new activity is a great start.

“Good mental health can influence your outlook on every aspect of life and result in more rewarding experiences,” explained Dr. Holve. With a few more dark, cold, and possibly isolated months to go this winter season, making your mental health a top priority can help provide the boost you need.