I love winter as much as the next person, but these are not the temperatures I signed up for as an Arkansas resident. We’ve already reached a record low of 12 degrees and the last two days haven’t risen above freezing. Even for someone who enjoys the cool weather, the constant frigid air can get old.
On top of the need to dress in a few more layers than usual, sometimes I find myself struggling with my mood this time of year. It’s difficult to get motivated, I’m less social, and I lean toward the “blahs” a lot of the time. Since the holidays occur around this time, I assumed they were responsible for those feelings, due to the associated increase in social commitments, financial strain from travel and gift-giving, and the stress of shopping and navigating crowds. But, while the holidays can impact mental health, winter itself is actually more of a culprit in these symptoms.
What exactly does the winter have to do with mental health? A lot, as it turns out. In the cooler months of the fall and winter, some people experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD). We all know there’s less sunlight during the winter. What many don’t realize is that it can cause unexpected changes in mental health. Our mood is significantly impacted by the amount of sunlight we receive, since lower sunlight levels combined with the time change can alter melatonin (related to sleep regulation) and serotonin levels (affects mood). Additionally, people often don’t make movement a priority during the winter, and exercise is an important preventative measure to take for almost all mental health disorders. People who experience SAD usually feel some of the below symptoms during the winter and early spring, but feel fine once the days stretch out again in late spring and summer.
SAD is a subset of major depression that includes (Mayo Clinic):
- Feeling depressed most of nearly every day
- Feeling hopeless
- Low energy
- Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Trouble sleeping
- Changes in appetite
- Sluggishness or agitation
- Difficulty concentrating
Additionally, winter- and fall-onset seasonal affective disorder may include:
- Trouble getting along with others
- Hypersensitivity to rejection
- Appetite changes and weight gain
Most of these symptoms are relatively harmless if experienced one at at a time—and only on occasion—but if you experience more than one at a time, or any of them for an on-going period, it’s crucial to take action. In particular, if you experience lasting changes in appetite or on-going depression, it’s a good idea to contact a counselor in order to avoid negative changes in your health. During your sessions, we’ll work on addressing any negative thoughts or behaviors that are making you feel worse. Our experienced counselors can also help you learn how to manage stress and anxiety, both of which contribute to the severity of S.A.D effects.
There are a few steps you can take to improve your mood immediately, including exercising regularly and opening the blinds and curtains in your home to let more light in. If the weather is temperate enough, consider taking daily walks outside to get more exposure to direct sunlight.
If you think you’re feeling the effects of seasonal affective disorder, know that you are not alone. It impacts thousands of people each year, many of whom aren’t aware of what’s going on, instead blaming their mood on the stress of the holidays or the cold weather. The good news is you don’t have to accept this as “just the way things are.” Treatment is available, and with it, you can enjoy life year-round.
As always, Thriveworks Maumelle counselors are here for you, even if you’re not exactly sure what the problem is. We don’t have a waiting list. If you want to feel better, we can help.
Thriveworks Maumelle Counseling can be reached online or by phone at 501.628.9066