Emotional Support

The Fine Line Between Hibernation and Depression

By: Nadia Ahrens, LICSW

Average reading time: 3 minutes

Ever wonder if you’re just hibernating or whether you’re actually depressed? Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference, especially in the dark days of winter. The link between thyroid disease and depression is well established, so it’s good to be aware of signs and symptoms, especially during what is often referred to as a ‘depressing’ time of year.

During the fall and winter, we all lose a little motivation and just want to hibernate. Quiet, solitude, introspection, rest—these are part of the natural rhythm of the season. With shorter days and colder climates, it’s easy to tip into a sedentary cycle of inactivity.

Some of us go so deep into hibernation-mode that we tip into a true depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The line can be fine, and many of us fall somewhere in the middle. There’s a difference between a genuine diagnosis of depression and the natural wintertime pull to rest and regroup.

Let’s take a closer look at the difference between hibernation and depression. We’ll also look at ways we can lean into this cozy time of year while also taking good care of our mental health.

The Difference Between Hibernation and Depression

Hibernation: To spend the winter in close quarters in a dormant condition. To pass the winter in a resting state. The condition or period of an animal or plant spending the winter in a dormant state. A state of inactivity and metabolic depression characterized by low body temperature, slow breathing, and low metabolic rate.

(Obviously, humans don’t literally enter this state. But the shorter and colder days of winter tend to keep us indoors more: working on indoor projects, watching more movies, sleeping more, reading more, eating more, and moving less.)

Depression: A diagnosis of clinical depression requires that five or more of the symptoms below have been present during the same two-week period, and present a change from one’s usual level of functioning. Please note the “and”; both must be occurring. Additionally, at least one of your symptoms must be a depressed mood or a loss of ability to take pleasure in things you usually like (numbers 1 and 2 on the list below). Finally, the symptoms must cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

Symptoms of depression (according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – IV-R) include:

  1. Depressed mood most of the day nearly every day.
  2. Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day.
  3. A significant change in appetite nearly every day, or a change of more than five percent of your body weight within a month.
  4. Sleeping too much or too little nearly every day.
  5. Being observably restless or agitated, or being observably slowed down.
  6. Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day.
  7. Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt nearly every day.
  8. Diminished ability to think or concentrate or indecisiveness nearly every day.
  9. Recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal ideation, or an attempt or a plan to commit suicide.

If you truly meet five or more of these criteria, including either No. 1 or No. 2, you should get yourself to a mental health provider for a professional evaluation.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a recurring major depression (see above) with a seasonal pattern.

Please Note: These definitions are here to get you thinking, and are not meant as a substitute for proper mental health care or diagnosis.

Hibernation Isn’t Depression

We, as humans in the new millennium, forget that we are part of the animal system on the planet. We are of the Earth. We are part of nature! Think about primitive or indigenous peoples, and how their lives were shaped by the rhythm of the seasons. Our tendencies to slow down and stay warm in winter have developed over eons of human survival. It’s natural and instinctual.

Those of us who are movers, shakers, and doers often struggle with this quiet and introspective time of year. We face guilt and poor self-esteem when we stop achieving so much. But by slowing down and rejuvenating, you’ll actually end up more productive, not less. Perhaps our expectations of being “Go! Go! Go!” are actually working against us here.

What would it look like if we slowed down and went within?

How to Enjoy a Healthy Hibernation

If you are needing more solitude, or if you are looking for quieter activities (like scrapbooking or knitting) instead of being a social butterfly, maybe you aren’t suffering from depression at all. Maybe you are just responding to the cycle of nature. What looks like the blues might actually be your system insisting on a time for slowing down and going within before you blossom again in the spring.

If that’s the case, you need to embrace this time and allow yourself a little hibernation.

This is a time to restore your energy and spirit. Eat right. Make a point to get more sunlight (even if it’s a sun lamp). Get to the gym if you love it. Go for walks if you don’t. Give yourself the gift of time alone to think, to daydream, to reflect, or to just do nothing. Treat yourself to things that pamper you, like a hot bath or massage. Get out in nature. Stay away from crowds and from people who cause you stress. Spend time with the people who love you the most.

Perhaps best of all, embrace this opportunity to explore those shadowy neglected corners of your emotional landscape. Grab your journal, let it all out, and compassionately allow yourself to feel and heal. Hibernation time can provide a precious space to connect with our innermost feelings.

Be grateful for this time and nurture your soul. Soon enough it will be springtime again.


About the Author

Nadia Ahrens, LICSW, is a psychotherapist and transformational coach in private practice. A graduate of Boston University and Columbia University, she’s been practicing the art of helping, teaching, and mentoring others for nearly twenty years. Nadia teaches Personal Transformation groups and retreats and is a trained clinical hypnotherapist. After enduring her own ‘transformational trauma,’ she believes that we can transform from anything and everything. We are all here to learn, grow, and evolve, into our best, shiniest selves. Nadia lives in Seattle with her husband and two surviving children. Join her on Facebook at Nadia Ahrens Therapy