Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person with seasonal affective disorder looks out the window at snow falling and appears sad.

How to Survive a Cold, Dark Winter When You’re an HSP

Does winter leave you feeling sluggish, hopeless, or depressed? You’re not the only one. 

Colder temperatures. Frosted car windows that need time to thaw in the mornings. Less sunlight, which means less vitamin D, which means a drop in serotonin. More layers. More dark. And more time indoors.

That’s all a recipe for … disaster? Well, not quite. It’s all about perspective. 

As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I already tend to be a deep thinker and experience my environment to a magnified degree compared to non-HSPs — including the emotions that come with it. During winter, that means the cold and dark affect me very, very deeply.

But here’s the thing: I’m not only a highly sensitive person. I also live in Alaska. And it gets dark, like really dark, from November through March. For almost half the year, I live in dark and cold conditions that most of the world never sees. 

And to top that off, I moved here from Florida(!). And yes: As a result of living in a dark and cold climate, I suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Suffice it to say, I’ve had to adapt a lot the past few years, but I’ve actually learned how to thrive. And, while every HSP’s experience will be different, I’d like to show you how I’ve survived the cold and dark months — high sensitivity and all. 

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder — and How Does It Affect Sensitive People? 

Seasonal affective disorder is a condition that usually starts in late fall or early winter and lasts until warmer seasons (and you don’t have to live in Alaska to experience it!). Some signs include everything from having trouble concentrating and little energy to feeling hopeless and depressed just about every day. If you find yourself feeling sluggish, fatigued, or anxious as the days get shorter, you may be experiencing SAD. 

I, however, didn’t know what SAD was when I moved to Alaska five years ago. All I knew was that when the days got shorter and more darkness surrounded me, I felt sad. All the time. 

In fact, I had moments of questioning it all. For some people, SAD can get downright dangerous: a sense of worthlessness, lack of motivation, and even thoughts of suicide. 

I even grew to fear spending time alone, something we HSPs tend to value because it gives us a chance to process. The sun (literally) never shone bright and I missed its warmth on my skin. Being alone only made the darkness feel more real. 

As extreme as these symptoms may sound, though, they are all due to chemical imbalances that occur in the brain when exposed to less sunlight; namely, serotonin and melatonin. 

Serotonin, the “happy hormone,” is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood. With less light and vitamin D, there is a drop in serotonin, and it’s only natural that our moods go down. 

Melatonin, the “sleep hormone” is released in the brain when darkness sets in. It helps regulate our sleep, but becomes disrupted when we experience too much darkness. 

As HSPs, our brains already feel things more deeply, so just imagine how these chemical imbalances throw our circadian rhythm — our internal clocks — completely out of whack.

Over time, once I started changing my daily habits and leveling up my self-care game, I began embracing winter instead of dreading it. Now, I feel like I have more control when I become overwhelmed versus believing that the environment controls me.

5 Ways to Survive the Cold and Dark Winter Months as an HSP

1. Set (or reset) your sleep schedule.

I cannot reiterate this enough: whatever your sleep cycle is in the warmer months, try to maintain it throughout fall and winter. Experts agree, saying it’s important to practice good sleep hygiene, from going to bed and waking up at the same time every day to not using electronics — like your phone — in bed. 

Plus, highly sensitive people may need more sleep than others (just don’t sleep too much like I was).

The way we start our days has a major impact on how we feel throughout the day, so waking up at the same time every morning is critical to staying alert, happy, and productive in the colder months. 

And since we HSPs thrive on our routines, following one when it comes to sleep should be no problem. 

Personally, I use a smart wakeup light. When it goes off, the light emulates a sunrise and gradually brightens up my room while playing soft music. 

And, to help make the transition that it’s time for bed, I also take a hot bath with Epsom salt and/or lavender oil and read for a while (not on my phone). 

2. Light therapy is easy to do — and it’s worth it.

Lighting is everything during the darker seasons, and light helps adjust your internal body clock. 

During normal daylight hours, I keep a light therapy lamp on my desk while working at home. Light therapy lamps simulate sunlight and reduce the production of melatonin while increasing serotonin. Plus, they are small and portable enough to use anywhere in your house.

As an alternative, I also like my Himalayan salt lamp and recommend putting one in your bedroom or reading corner. The red glow it gives off produces a calming effect and makes me feel happier and more relaxed.

(I also love lighting a lot of candles as soon as it gets dark. In Alaska, this can be as early as 3 p.m. sometimes!) 

And, for HSPs, who tend to be sensitive to external stimuli like bright lights, I find all of the above to be soothing, a win-win for my SAD and highly sensitive self.

3. Help your body to help your mind.

Raise of hands if you are someone who lounges in bed longer in the mornings because it is just so warm and cozy! It’s OK to do this sometimes, but when it becomes the norm, we deprive ourselves of essential movement our bodies need. 

Exercise is a great reason for getting out of bed in the morning and great for self-care, too. You don’t necessarily have to do it right away, but I find it helps boost my mood and keeps my body temperature up throughout the day.

And exercise doesn’t have to involve going to a gym or on a run. You can do yoga, kettlebells, or jump rope — there are plenty of free recordings online. As an HSP, I like working out by myself anyway, sticking to routines I love.

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4. Whenever it’s feasible, brave a little time outside.

Yes, yes, and yes: Go outside every day. No excuses. 

For some perspective, a few years ago, I had major surgery in November, right as the cold and dark were creeping in. Even though it was difficult for me to walk, I still put on my warmest outfit and boots and walked around my neighborhood for 30 minutes every. single. day

The act of being outside in fresh air and taking a moment to clear my mind benefited me greatly, especially since HSPs are so attuned to nature.

And you also get a bit of vitamin D by being outside even if the sun is hiding. Hint: Make sure to take a vitamin D supplement, too, since winter sunlight isn’t as potent.

5. Omit (or limit) alcohol and focus on hot non-alcoholic drinks instead. 

As I have learned more about my sensitivity as an HSP, I’ve discovered that I have a sensitivity to alcohol, too. This isn’t such a bad thing since alcohol is a depressant and only seems to add to the sadness one can feel, especially during the winter months. 

My highly sensitive self already spends a lot of time in my head; if I add alcohol to that, I overthink everything and make poor decisions.

Instead, I drink lots of hot liquids, like homemade soups, hot chocolate, teas, and coffee.

A habit I encourage is to keep a thermos filled with hot water nearby — our bodies need warmer liquids in the cold to help regulate our core temperature and improve blood circulation. 

My overall mood and life changed significantly when I said “no” to alcohol and “yes” to nourishing foods and liquids. 

With that comes a more nourishing mindset in general. One of the most beautiful things I have learned about the changing of seasons is that we, too, experience similar changes within us each year. I now welcome the dark as a time to go inward and as a time to rest and practice empathy with myself. 

As HSPs, we need that kind of time for self-reflection to truly blossom. And if we shift our mindset to accept the gifts that winter offers, the dark will no longer be something to fear. 

You can find out more about my services as a life coach at living-untethered.com.

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