The long months of winter sometimes seem to have no end. The sun rarely peeks out from behind an oppressive shroud of clouds, and temperatures force us to bundle up and rush from one indoor sanctuary to the next.
You have probably heard people talking about SAD — an apt acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder — during the winter. SAD is a type of depression tied to the seasons. The darker and colder months of the year can disrupt your sleep schedule, cause your serotonin levels to drop and put you in a poor mood. Approximately 10 million Americans say they experience SAD. While it’s four times more common in women, anyone — man or woman — can experience the symptoms of this disorder.
While we might still be in the grip of the grim winter months, spring is closer than it seems. The days are starting to get longer, and we have more sunlight and warmer temperatures to look forward to. If winter can have such a profound effect on our mental health, it only makes sense that spring would have the same power.
Spring is a time of renewal and growth. We can shed not only our layers but also bad habits that we would rather let go of. Here is a look at how spring affects us psychologically and how we can take advantage of the season to build lasting, healthy habits.
The Psychological Effects of Spring
Spring brings with it sunny days, warmer temperatures and a sense of hope. What does spring have to offer, and how does it affect our minds and bodies?
Sunlight affects our brain chemistry, which in turn influences our mood and how we feel physically. Exposure to sunlight affects our serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that has a tremendous impact on our bodies. It plays a role in not only our general mood but also our sleep pattern, memory, appetite and sexual desire. Lack of sunlight can lead to a drop in serotonin, which can make sleep difficult, change how much we want to eat and how our body processes what we do eat and negatively affect sexual desire and function. The lengthening days of spring can start to reverse that serotonin dip.
Sunlight also affects the brain’s production of the hormone melatonin, which is released in greater levels when it is dark out. This hormone helps us sleep. When we get less sunlight, our bodies tend to produce more melatonin, hence the sluggish feeling you often encounter during the darker months of winter.
Light from the sun also plays a large role in getting your body the vitamin D it needs. When our skin comes into contact with ultraviolet rays from the sun, our bodies produce vitamin D, which helps keep bones strong and healthy.
Overall, getting more sunshine helps our bodies feel more awake and puts us in a better mood. Just remember, you still need to wear sunscreen and stay properly hydrated when you spend hours outside on a spring day.
2. Warmer Weather
Many of us feel more active during the warmer months. You don’t have to put on so many clothes that you feel like you’re wearing battle armor every time you step outside. During the spring, you can throw on a light jacket or no extra layers at all on nicer days.
Rising temperatures also give our immune systems a break. During the winter, we have to contend with cold and flu season. Everywhere you go someone seems to be coughing, sneezing or sniffling. Our immune systems are working overtime doing the best they can to keep us healthy and warm during the cold months. When the days start to get warmer, our body doesn’t have to commit as much energy to keeping our immune systems in overdrive.
Warmer weather can also affect our mindset. Some studies suggest that spending time outside in a warmer climate is linked to an increase in creativity. Spring is usually a time of temperate weather. You can enjoy the benefits of the warmth without sweltering heat that may come later.
3. A Time for New Beginnings
The spring season has long been considered a symbol of renewal and hope. After months of dreary, cold weather, the world starts to come alive with color and warmth. New plants start growing from the earth. Sunshine brings more light into the world.
You can seize this feeling of hope and use it to fuel your optimism and, as it turns out, health. A study of more than 5,100 adults conducted by the University of Illinois found that optimists were 76 percent more likely to have blood sugar and cholesterol in a healthy range.
Embrace spring as your perennial opportunity for change and personal growth. Optimism can help you become more engaged in your life and see failure as a chance for a fresh start. Allowing yourself to hope opens you up to new experiences and ideas. Let spring be the start of your commitment to healthy habits.
Spring Mental Health Tips
Mental health is so often overlooked. Let the renewal of spring be your cue to look at your mental wellbeing. Here are ten spring tips that will help you get a fresh start to the new year.
1. Get Outside
Remember how much of a drag those long, dark winter days can be? When the tides start to turn toward spring, make it a point to regularly get outside and soak up that sunshine. You will get your daily dose of vitamin D, and you’ll be able to practice feeling grateful for the small things — like birdsong or new flowers.
It’s easy to stick with our winter routines even once the weather starts to warm up. We go to work, we go home and we set up camp on the couch. Nothing is wrong with days like that, but try to find creative ways to work in time outdoors. Maybe take a 15 to 20-minute walk on your lunch break. If you like team sports, consider joining an outdoor league. If you have the yard space, take up gardening. Use the warm weather as a reason to try something new.
Spending time outside is a great way to stay active, which in turn does your mental health a big favor. Get outside and savor life.
2. Commit to an Exercise Routine
Exercise has been shown to help reduce and manage mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Naturally, more physical activity is a common New Year’s resolution, but the middle of winter can be a hard time to start working towards that goal. The weather is brutally cold, and making excuses to avoid going out is all too easy. No wonder the gym is back to the regular crowd after the first few weeks of January.
Use springtime to build your exercise routine. Start small. Don’t buy a gym membership if you feel intimidated or don’t like the idea of all those machines. Try walking or running. Listen to your favorite music while you do. Combine exercise with something you already enjoy so you can make it an activity you look forward to, not dread. Make small commitments and then larger ones until exercise becomes a regular habit.
3. Reset Your Sleep Cycle
As many as 40 million people struggle with some kind of sleep disorder. Maybe you are among them, or maybe you’ve just let winter get you into some bad sleep habits. Not getting enough sleep on a regular basis is bad for your mental health. Moving through the day unrested leaves you feeling drained and more vulnerable to stress.
Instead of letting your unhealthy sleep habits follow you from winter into spring, look for ways to get more quality sleep. Do your best to go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time every day. Remove digital distractions, like your phone or your tablet, from your bedroom. Like any other habit, building a good sleep schedule takes time. You can use apps or set alarms to help remind you it is time to go to sleep. If you live with someone, enlist their help in removing those digital distractions.
4. Try Some New, Healthy Foods
Maintaining a good diet may sound like a tip for purely physical health, but what we eat also affects our mental health. Caffeine can exacerbate anxiety. Eating mostly foods lacking in vital nutrients often affects how alert you feel.
Focus on adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet. You can start small by picking a day for salads. If you like to cook, look up different recipes for healthy meals and play around in the kitchen. Healthy foods do not have to be a burden on the taste buds.
If you find you do not have the time to cook regularly — or you just don't like to — think about signing up for a meal prep service. These types of services deliver all the ingredients for a healthy meal right to your door. All you need to do is some minor assembly.
5. Drink More Water
You have probably heard the age-old advice to drink at least eight glasses of water per day. It sounds like a lot, but if we do not drink enough water, we leave ourselves at risk of dehydration. Even minor dehydration can change how we think, give us headaches and make us feel less than great.
Find ways to add more water to your daily routine. Drink a glass when you first wake up in the morning. Set aside designated water breaks during your work day. It might motivate you to keep it up if you keep track of how you feel after staying properly hydrated.
6. Do Some Spring Cleaning
Spring cleaning can be a literal uncluttering of your home and your workspace, which is great for your mental health. It gives you a sense of productivity and an organized space to help clear your mind.
Spring cleaning can also mean clearing some of the less obvious clutter from your life. Do you notice that you've fallen into any toxic relationship patterns? Is there a friend or acquaintance that always seems to come with drama and negativity? Try to answer that question honestly, and make moves to change how it affects your life.
7. Try to Unplug More Often
Much of the world today revolves around our ability to stay connected online. Being able to communicate so readily can be a good thing, but too much of a good thing has its downfalls. Endlessly scrolling through social media can make anyone’s self-esteem take a hit. Staring at a computer screen all day can be a recipe for a headache.
Give yourself time to put aside your phone or tablet and step away from the computer. Fill that time with something else you enjoy. Take a walk. Read a book. Have a cup of tea. Spend time with a friend.
8. Take a Deep Breath
This might be the simplest tip for improving your mental health this spring, but it’s also one of the easiest to overlook. Next time you are caught up in the rush of your routine or the tangle of your thoughts, take a moment to step back. Stop what you are doing and try some deep breathing. Try to do this for five to 10 seconds.
Deep breathing can help you reduce your stress levels. It can even boost your immune system. When you feel like you’re going to get swept away, allow yourself just a few seconds to breathe.
9. Plan Ahead
Spring is like a reinvigorating breath of fresh air. Capitalize on that feeling of renewed energy and plan ahead. Is there something you have always wanted to do, but never found the time for? Make yourself a goal and break it down into manageable steps. Look to your future with a sense of excitement. Achieving even minor goals allows a great boost for self-confidence and offers a good way to foster your mental wellbeing.
10. Practice Self-Love
Many people fall prey to perfectionism, regrets and grudges. Those things weigh heavily on the mind, but they are rarely productive. Take spring as an opportunity to be a little kinder to yourself. Accept that you are not perfect, but celebrate that you are trying. Try to forgive yourself for the past, and look forward instead. Also try to forgive others for past wrongs.
Work on Building Healthy Habits You Can Maintain Year Round
Healthy habits for women can be any number of different things related to exercise, diet and a good night’s sleep. Use the spring season as the spark for starting healthy habits, but do not let that spark die out as spring moves to the busy social calendar of summer and then onto the colder and darker months of fall and winter. Take your new jogging routine, fresh and fruity menu and regular bedtimes with you.
Of course, building new habits and sticking to them can be tough. Here are a few tips for building habits you can maintain all year.
- Pick a habit that makes sense for you: Do you hate biking? Don’t choose that as your exercise habit. Find something you either already like or could imagine growing to like.
- Get your friends and family involved: Turn to your support system for help. It is harder to break a habit if you know your workout buddy is waiting for you or your mealtime companion is counting on you for that healthy dish.
- Keep track of your progress: Why keep a habit if you don’t notice any change? Monitor what your healthy habits are doing for your mental and physical health. Are you gaining that muscle mass you wanted? Do you feel more refreshed after sticking with your sleep schedule? Results drive us to keep going.
- Reward yourself: Find small ways to reward yourself for sticking with your good habits. When you hit a benchmark, take yourself shopping, enjoy a dessert you love or spend time doing something you love.
If you need some extra help getting through depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, challenges with substances or another mental health or addiction problem this winter or spring, rely on Brookhaven Retreat. We offer a private, voluntary residential program for women, and we’ll help you start down the path to mental wellness.