As we move into the winter months, I’ve noticed how strongly the weather influences the way we all feel. Most of my clients have mentioned feeling blue, and some wonder if they are depressed especially during those weeks when super-low temperatures made us all want to hide indoors.
Why do we feel crabby and restless at this time of year? Are we missing the bright cheer of the holidays? Or is there something more substantial that tends to plunge us into a dark winter mood?
While we don’t have all the answers, studies of people who suffer from serious mood swings when the seasons change offer helpful insights for all of us.
Symptoms that show up when the dark days arrive
Some of the most helpful findings about winter’s effects on our mental health come from research on Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Though most of us don’t suffer from the deep depression that SAD can cause, we may experience similar symptoms:
- Feeling “down” most of the day
- Losing interest in favorite activities
- Low energy
- Trouble sleeping
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Sugar and carbohydrate cravings
- Irritability or agitation
- Difficulty concentrating
Clues to the causes of wintertime mood shifts
Mental health experts aren’t exactly sure, but thanks to studies of SAD, we have a few excellent clues.
Reduced levels of sunlight in fall and winter are believed to trigger SAD symptoms. The decrease in sunshine may disrupt our body’s natural (circadian) rhythms, leading to blue moods and, in some cases, clinical depression.
With fewer sunny hours to enjoy, we also experience a drop in serotonin, an important brain chemical that affects mood. Changes in season can also disrupt natural levels of melatonin, another natural compound in our bodies that regulates sleep cycles. Together, these biological changes may set the stage for the sluggish, restless feelings we face in wintertime.
Ways to lift your spirits and enjoy the season more
While the winter doldrums are a natural phenomenon, there are things we can do to ease their effects.
Bundle up and get out. Sure, it’s hard – but the mental stimulation is well worth the effort. Theaters, museums, cafes, restaurants and music venues offer us the lively energy we need right now. Visit a nature center or local park to remind yourself that wintry scenes can be beautiful too.
Work up a sweat. Exercise stimulates the production of serotonin and helps counteract disruptions to our sleep cycles, so don’t skip your workout! Find a buddy to help you stay faithful to your exercise routine – or try a new video or class for variety.
Seek the sunlight. Make it a point to read or work in natural light as much as possible. Visit an indoor botanical garden to soak up some rays. Take walks on beautiful days – and of course, if you can vacation in a sunny climate, by all means do it.
Hang out with friends. Spending time with people we care about lifts our spirits. Meeting a friend or loved one for coffee or a meal will help you feel warm and connected, so make the effort to reach out often.
Try something new. An engaging book, a new craft or a big project can challenge your brain in a good way. If it’s hard getting started, try just a few minutes at a time or take a class where you can learn with others.
When to ask for help
Feeling a bit “blah” right now is perfectly normal. But if you or a loved one is deeply sad and discouraged, feeling nothing’s really worth doing, then depression may be the root cause. This is a serious condition that rarely goes away on its own – and you may need help figuring out what to do next.
Take a look at the symptoms on the list above and ask yourself how much your current symptoms are interfering with normal life. Are you surrounded by a sense of despair that just won’t go away? If the answer is yes, then you should get help now.
As a therapist working with adults of all ages in Oak Park, I am here for you and the people you care about. Even if you’re not sure where to begin or what to say, simply call me or send a private message. I have helped many men and women overcome mood difficulties and I am ready to assist you too.