19 Ways to Conquer the February Blahs

Woman looking at snowy field

Diagnosis: Winter Blues

A few years ago at this time of year, I noticed that I was uncharacteristically feeling … well … blah. I wasn’t exactly depressed. I was just unenthusiastic about everything. I’m usually very self-motivated and I could barely drag my body across the hall to my home office. How did I become so lazy? What was going on?

The experience also felt eerily familiar. In fact, I felt the same way previous years at exactly this time. Apparently the February blahs (also known as the “winter blues” or “February blues”) struck again. I guess it’s not surprising given that our New York winters are cold and bleak. I feel like this year is even worse due to the last two years of isolation, social distancing, and fear about catching covid (or the trauma of recovering from covid).

The good thing was that I now recognize the pattern. To quote Ben Franklin, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I have learned to take weekends off and pay as much attention to my mental health as I do to my business. The combo of rest, relaxation and hobby time haven’t completely eliminated the blue feeling, but it has reduced it significantly.

Are you SAD or Blue?

It’s important to know that there is a more serious form of the February Blues called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is depression that requires medical treatment. According the National Institute of Mental Health, the winter blues is a milder form of SAD, which is characterized by feelings of hopelessness and despair, fatigue, problems sleeping and concentrating, and changes in appetite.

February Blues Start in January

It’s interesting that the third Monday in January is widely known as Blue Monday – the most depressing day of the year. In 2022, that day was Monday, January 17.

According to Wikipedia, Blue Monday was created by researcher Cliff Arnall. The exact date is based on many factors, including weather conditions, debt level (the difference between debt accumulated and our ability to pay), time since Christmas, time since failing our new year’s resolutions, low motivational levels, and feeling of a need to take action. (Source)

February Blues Can Be Worse for Solopreneurs

I believe February blahs can create additional pressures on solopreneurs due to:

  • Aggressive goal-setting for the new year, which can make us feel like a failure if we’re not meeting these heightened expectations.
  • The need to address unpleasant accounting and tax issues, beginning with sending out 1099’s.
  • Fatigue created by not taking time to recover from a busy holiday or year-end season.
  • The ability to hibernate (made worse by the pandemic), which can enhance the blues due to a serious lack of sunlight or socializing.
  • A lack of company-sanctioned vacation days to look forward to.
  • No coworkers to commiserate with about your lack of energy.

What causes the winter blues?

Most scientists believe that the winter blues are caused by the reduced daylight hours in winter. Reduced daylight hours means less exposure to sunlight, which causes:

  1. Lower serotonin production. According to the Mayo Clinic, sunlight enters the brain through our eyes, stimulating the production of a neurotransmitter called serotonin, which supports nerve cell functioning including mood. This lower level of serotonin can also increase your appetite, reduce your memory, and leave you feeling very tired. (Source)
  2. Higher melatonin production. Darkness triggers your brain to produce the hormone melatonin to help you sleep. Sunlight triggers your brain to stop producing melatonin, so that you will feel awake and alert. Unfortunately, the long, dark nights of winter may cause your body to create too much melatonin, which leaves you feeling tired and unenergetic.

 19 Ways to Cope with the February Blues

The good news is, once you recognize the February Blues are an issue, you can take swift actions to keep them from getting worse. Here are some suggestions to help you cope.

  1. Recognize you’re not alone. According to the Cleveland Clinic, approximately half a million people in the United States suffer from winter SAD, while 10 to 20 percent may suffer from the winter blues. Three-quarters of the sufferers are women, and the depression usually starts in early adulthood. (Source)
  2. Get the right amount of sleep. It’s important that you don’t sleep too much or too little, so aim for an eight-hour period of sleep with regular sleep and wake up times. Oversleeping and modifying your sleep-wake schedule can increase the amount of melatonin created during sleep, which can increase feelings of lethargy and depression. Set a regular bedtime and wake up at the same time each day.
  3. Skip long naps. Even though the February blues make you feel tired, naps are not the answer. Naps that are longer than 20 or 30 minutes can disrupt your nighttime sleep and cause you to become more tired. Instead of napping, take an exercise or meditation break to renew your energy.
  4. Go outside and get some sun. Researchers found that the amount of serotonin in the brain is directly affected by the amount of sunlight on any given day. Going outside on sunny days can boost the natural antidepressants in your brain. (Source)
  5. Open your blinds. To boost serotonin, let as much natural light into your home as possible. If you can’t go outside, sit by a window and absorb the natural rays.
  6. Try light therapy. Are you getting the message that sunlight is important? If you can’t get enough natural light, try using a light box to simulate the sun’s natural rays.  Depending on the severity of the winter blues, most people find their symptoms are gone after two weeks of use. For more information on choosing a light box, check out this article from the Mayo Clinic.
  7. Add cheerful touches to your home. Do everything possible to make your living and working space less dreary. Consider using fresh flowers, silk plants, bright colored throw pillows, happy artwork, or twinkle lights to make your home more cheery.
  8. Lighten up. Laughter is the best medicine. According to HelpGuide.com, laughter increases endorphins, strengthens your immune system, boosts mood, diminishes pain, and protects you from the damaging effects of stress. It also helps you release anger and forgive sooner. (Source)
  9. Enjoy mood-boosting music. In two studies by Yuna Ferguson, a University of Missouri doctoral student, mood-boosting music can make a difference. Participants successfully improved their moods in the short term and boosted their overall happiness over a two week period by listening to positive music while trying to feel happier. (Source)
  10. Exercise. No surprise, right? Moving your body will cause your brain to release feel-good chemicals (serotonin and endorphins) that can be powerful natural antidepressants and help with sleep.
  11. Aroma therapy. Scents are known to have the power to lift moods, regulate emotions, and improve sleep. A 2017 study in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine said that aromatherapy has been proven to be a promising treatment in the battle against depression. Scents that may boost your mood include citrus, lavender, jasmine, rose and peppermint. Read this article by Shelby Deering for more information.
  12. Leave the house. As an introvert who works from home, I know that leaving the house takes effort — especially during a pandemic. However isolating yourself is a self-perpetuating cycle that leaves you feeling more isolated and unhappy. Break this cycle by meeting up with friends for a socially-distanced outing or take a walk around your neighborhood.
  13. Limit alcohol and caffeine. Sorry for the bad news. Consuming alcohol and caffeine can impact your sleep/wake cycle and increase your winter blues. Skip the alcohol and choose decaff coffee or tea.
  14. Clean up your diet. Check with a medical professional to see if changing your diet can improve your mood. It will be no surprise that healthy, whole foods support your health — and provide more sustained energy — than high carbohydrate snacks.
  15. Add vitamins and/or supplements. There is a lot of research showing that Omega-3 fatty acids, folic acid, Vitamin B-12 and Vitamin D can help improve your mood. Vitamin D deficiency, for example, can cause fatigue and a 2011 study showed that 41.6 percent of American adults are Vitamin D deficient. Check with a medical professional to see if vitamins or supplements is right for you.
  16. Learn something new. Does that blah feeling seem like boredom? It did for me. Take a class (there are lots of choices online), read a book, or try a new hobby to engage your excitement.
  17. See a mental health professional. According to the American Psychological Association, a psychologist can help you identify problem areas and then develop an action plan for changing them. Psychologists can offer strategies as to how to adjust your goals so that they are attainable, as well as help you change unhealthy behaviors and address emotional issues. (Source)
  18. Plan a vacation. When my husband and I lived in Toronto, Canada, we took an annual February vacation to the Caribbean. It was a magical cure for the winter blues and I learned why people flock to sunny destinations during the winter. Since covid is restricting travel, follow my lead and plan something special at home to lighten your mood.
  19. Be prepared. Now that I’ve recognized that the Winter Blues is a pattern, I’m guessing that I’ll be dealing with them at the same time next year. If this is your experience, make a note in next year’s calendar to remind you that the February blah’s are going to show up in your life. Prepare by scheduling a vacation or adding some fun to your schedule.

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19 Ways to Conquer the February Blahs
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