In many parts of the world, wintertime means cold weather. Cold temperatures can put stress on the body and mind. The shorter days mean less sunshine which lowers vitamin D levels, the dry air can cause dry skin, and the threat of colds and other viruses hover like shadows over social gatherings and public spaces. The idea of exercising outside is similar to the thought of jumping into a tub of ice.
Overall, a lot of us would rather skip winter altogether and hibernate under a mound of comforters. We'll wake up when the tulips are in bloom and the birds are singing.
There is no denying cold temperature can have an adverse effect on the brain. However, it is possible to tackle the effects of the cold weather, such as winter depression and seasonal affective disorder even in the coldest parts of the world. As you'll find out below, a lot of surviving the psychological effects of winter is about adapting to change in small ways and embracing the cold with open arms — just make sure to keep them covered.
Ways the Winter Weather Can Affect Your Mental Health
There are lots of legitimate reasons why you may feel miserable in the winter. In fact, it is only natural to feel less energized when the temperature drops. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons winter brings us down.
1. Less Sunlight
In the Northern hemisphere, winter begins at the end of December. This is the time of the year when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun, thus giving us fewer hours of sunlight. Less sunlight makes for a lot of changes our bodies have to adapt to.
For one, our biological clock controls our circadian rhythm. Our circadian rhythm follows a daily cycle — our bodies respond to light by being awake during the day and asleep at night when it is dark. Daylight can control the molecular structure of our biological clock by turning on or turning off genes and, as a result, reset our circadian rhythm.
When our circadian rhythm gets disrupted, sleep disorders, depression and hormonal changes can result. Our circadian rhythm tells our body to produce the hormone melatonin when it gets dark. This makes us sleepy far before our usual bedtime.
Short winter days may feel like they do not give us the energy and time to do everything we want to accomplish in a day. This can be a bummer, especially to those who take a lot of joy in working or exercising outdoors.
2. Less Vitamin D
Less sunlight equals less vitamin D. A lack of vitamin D is linked to depression. This is because there are vitamin D receptors in the brain in areas of the brain where depression can develop. Without vitamin D to attach to the receptors and send signals to the body's cells and instruct them what to do, depression can follow.
Getting vitamin D by exposing your skin to the sun lifts the mood and energizes you. The trouble is, in the winter the sun doesn’t get high enough in the sky for its ultraviolet B rays to penetrate the atmosphere. Ultraviolet B rays need to hit your skin for your skin cells to react and produce vitamin D.
The further away from the equator you live, the less the sun's rays will reach you during the winter season. Missing out on vitamin D in the winter is almost inevitable.
3. Cold Temperatures
Cold temperatures mean a lot of different things to our lifestyles and our mental health. For one, if you enjoy going for hikes or swimming at the lake, freezing temperatures keep you stuck indoors. With lack of exercise, fresh air and sunlight it's no wonder winter brings on the blues.
Exercise reduces stress by reducing the hormone cortisol in the body and boosts happiness by releasing endorphins in the brain. Although the body releases endorphins only with anaerobic or high-intensity exercise, moderate physical activity can produce the same effects as antidepressants too.
Plus, a lot of people exercise with others. Not being able to go on an outing with your walking buddy might lead to feelings of social isolation. Social isolation can contribute to depression. If your preferred method of exercise takes place outdoors, freezing temperatures might prevent you from exercising, and thus have a negative impact on your mood.
The cold temperature itself can cause depression too. Cold weather keeps us from moving around and getting our blood flowing, which can lead to inflammation, and inflammation can signal the brain to become depressed.
Cold temperatures also slow down the immune system's response time, making it harder to fend off germs. We also tend to spend a lot of time with others trapped indoors, which increases our exposure to bacteria and viruses. Weather or barometric changes can trigger migraines too.
Being stuck in bed with the flu is not a fun experience and could bring anyone down. It puts a halt to your life and your routine. For some people, falling ill adds a lot of stress because they are not able to call off work.
Lastly, cold weather means it is time to pack away your bathing suit and shorts and unpack the bulky sweaters and scarves. Although it might be nice to cozy up in an oversized sweater, it can get tiresome layering on clothes every time you need to step outside. Sometimes it feels easier to avoid going out altogether.
Another downside to being covered head to toe? Covering up the skin lessens your chance of absorbing vitamin D because you skin is not exposed to the sunlight.
4. Feeling Unhappy With Appearance
Cookies and cakes in the office, a big pot of chili simmering on the stove, a mug of hot cocoa in the microwave — how else can we deal with the misery of being trapped indoors on cold, snowy days but indulge in comfort foods? Winter weather can make weight loss or weight maintenance a battle.
Try not to beat yourself up if you overindulge a little because it's natural to eat a bit more in cold weather. The act of eating raises body temperature as your body works to digest food. Plus your body is working hard to conserve heat, and you need food for energy to do that.
Although our metabolism increases to burn more energy to help us stay warm, it may not be enough to burn off the extra calories. You may find the cold temperature encouraging you to put on pounds. Try not to fret — you can still maintain a healthy diet and exercise routine even in the middle of winter. Focus on making healthy comfort foods and look into trying new ways to stay active.
There is also the problem of dry skin in the winter, which can make us feel less attractive. The low-humidity, brisk winter wind and dry indoor air can cause skin to itch and peel and drive us crazy.
With all these things in mind, it is not hard to imagine how easy it can be to feel down once winter presses its snowy face against the window, but with a little conscious planning you can stay feeling positive and healthy in the winter.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
You may find that your mood is a lot brighter with more sunshine and warmer weather. As it is normal to feel less energized during the winter season, it is also possible that you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that changes with the seasons. The exact causes of SAD are unknown, but certain factors may cause someone to suffer from SAD at different times of the years, such as:
- A lack of vitamin D from less exposure to sunlight during winter months.
- An overproduction of melatonin. Melatonin production increases with darkness, so people with SAD are more likely to feel sluggish during the winter.
- Trouble regulating serotonin in winter months. Serotonin helps regulate mood.
SAD typically affects some people more than others. You are more likely to experience SAD if you:
- Are female — women are four times more likely than men to experience SAD
- Have depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism or an eating disorder.
- Live far from the equator.
- Have a family history of depression.
- Are young. Young adults, teens and even children report having SAD more often than older adults.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
It is important to note that the symptoms of SAD are not separate from depression symptoms. SAD is a type of depression that follows a seasonal pattern. Symptoms of winter SAD include:
- Low energy
- Craving carbohydrates
- Social withdrawal
- Feelings of sadness or apathy
- Crying spells
- Body aches
- Depression symptoms such as:
- Loss of interest in pleasurable activities
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feelings of hopelessness or guilt
- Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Treatment for SAD is primarily the same as treatment for depression. One difference is SAD is sometimes treated with light therapy. Light therapy is meant to reset your biological clock.
Other forms of SAD treatment include:
- Group or individual therapy
- Medication such as SSRIs or other antidepressants
- Cognitive behavioral therapy — can help reduce symptoms and teach coping skills in combination with light therapy.
- Vitamin D supplements
Seasonal changes can be especially difficult for those who already suffer from depression. Fortunately, there are ways to cope with SAD and the winter blues and boost your mental health.
Tips for Mental Wellness in the Winter
1. Stay active
During winter, it is tempting to stay planted on the couch instead of heading out into the icy cold. No need to worry. If you are not a fan of winter sports such as skiing or ice skating, there are plenty of indoor options to fit into your routine.
Aim to exercise at least three or four times a week for no less than thirty minutes. Regular exercise reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression by boosting feel-good chemicals in your brain. Exercise also strengthens your immune system — another major plus during flu season.
Choose an exercise that you enjoy and make it a priority to stick to your plan. Do you love to swim? Join the local gym to take advantage of their indoor pool. Sign up for a new exercise class with a group of friends to stay active and spend time with people who make you happy. You can also walk around your favorite stores or mall to get your blood flowing while you shop.
If you would rather stay home, turn up your favorite playlist and practice some new moves. All you need to do is get your heart pumping and have a little fun.
2. Eat Healthy
Sticking to a healthy diet can be especially tricky during the winter season because of the holidays and the urge to overindulge that comes from our body’s natural reaction to the season. However, ensuring that you get proper nutrition will help ward off colds and keep you feeling happy and fit.
There may not be a ton of fresh fruits and vegetables available during the cold season, but there are some winter foods worth including in a healthy diet:
- Pomegranates are rich in antioxidants.
- Dark leafy greens contain an abundance of vitamins A, C and K.
- Citrus fruits have a ton of vitamin C.
- Potatoes and winter squash are excellent sources of folate and potassium.
Include these foods and other vitamin-packed fruits and vegetables in your favorite recipes. If you cannot give up your love of summer produce like corn on the cob or strawberries, you can often find frozen versions of these foods.
You will also want to make sure to stay hydrated. Drink plenty of fluids to help flush out bacteria and help your body function at its best. Aim to drink eight eight-ounce glasses of water each day.
3. Stay Social
Next time you feel like spending the weekend alone on your couch, remember that spending time with others boosts mental health and decreases depression. Numerous studies have shown that people who have strong relationships with others experience more happiness, better health and live longer.
If you do not have positive relationships to depend on yet, that’s okay too. Volunteer in your community or do work that helps others. Helping others releases stress-reducing chemicals in the brain.
4. Beat Winter Germs
Wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds and make sure you lather the entire hand — between fingers and under nails.
The point of proper handwashing is to create friction with the soap on your hands to detach germs. In public places, use a paper towel to turn off faucets and to open the door. Use hand sanitizer when a sink and soap are not available.
You may want to improve your indoor air quality too. Let cold air into the home once in a while to air it out. Use a humidifier to help moisturize dry air. Place plants such as aloe or English ivy around the house to naturally purify the air.
5. Take Any Necessary Supplements
Supplements can help you stay physically and mentally healthy during the gloomiest time of the year.
You can take omega-3 fatty acids to help moisturize dry skin and stabilize your mood. Omega-3s are known for their anti-inflammatory properties and work like antidepressants to reduce feelings of sadness and hopelessness. You can also choose to eat seafood two to three times a week instead. Walnuts, leafy greens and flax seeds also contain omega-3s.
A vitamin D supplement is a winter must-have due to lack of sunlight. Vitamin D3 works best as it is the natural form of vitamin D. There are small amounts of vitamin D in fatty fish, egg yolks, fortified milk and cereals, but not enough for what we need. Experts recommend that adults get 5,000 IU a day if they have a vitamin D deficiency.
Also, consider taking vitamin C or a multivitamin to keep your immune system winter-proof.
Always consult your doctor before taking any supplements. They can help determine what supplements your body needs and how much you should be taking daily.
6. Get Adequate Sleep
Sleeping is usually easier to do when the weather is cold, but certain habits like drinking alcohol or too much caffeine can have a negative effect on sleep. Poor sleep worsens anxiety and depression symptoms.
Adults aged 18-64 should aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Although winter can bring freezing nighttime temperatures, resist turning the heat up too high. Set your thermostat between 60-68 degrees at night for better sleep. Even though a cooler bedroom is better for sleeping, make sure you bundle up in cozy pajamas because being too cold can keep you awake.
Consider using a humidifier in your bedroom to keep your throat and nasal passages moist in the dry winter air.
7. Do Activities that Bring You Joy
If you are a nature lover or like to always be on the move, you may feel trapped indoors during the winter. However, there are a lot of activities you can do indoors to stimulate your mind.
Did you always want to make beaded bracelets and sell them online for a cause? Maybe you've wanted to refresh the language skills you learned in college? There are so many activities to do while snowed in, from watching classic films to picking up an old guitar. Winter weather is the perfect excuse to get in touch with your creative side and explore new hobbies.
Also, consider using time indoors to plan a spring or summer vacation. You will have sunshine and warm weather to look forward while wrapped up in your fleece throw.
Sometimes, it is worth bundling up and heading outside, even if just for a few minutes. Take in the beauty of snow glistening in the morning sun or catch a breath of exhilarating cool air. Winter offers moments of beauty and peace and reminds us of life's natural cycle.
Beat the Winter Blues
Winter can be a difficult time of the year, especially for those who already suffer from depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. Know that there are ways to make it to spring intact. Try not to be too hard on yourself and realize that it is natural to feel less energy during colder months.
Sometimes you need a little more support, and it is important to recognize if your winter blues are getting worse. Depression can have serious consequences, and it is hard to beat all on your own. Do not hesitate to reach out for help.
At Brookhaven Retreat we are here for you. We know how you feel, and we’re happy to help. Contact us today for more information about our individualized mental health program for women.