How Cold Weather Impacts Our Mood

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By Bonnie Azoulay Elmann

As the leaves change colors and the temperature begins to drop, it’s only a matter of time before winter is upon us. By then, most people will bundle up and stay indoors, only to venture outside for a snow shovel or a hot cup of coffee. Those who work from home will be thankful that they set up their office space just steps away from their fully stocked kitchens – why leave the house when you can turn up the heat and turn on Netflix once your windows begin to frost? 

Well, here’s the thing with hibernating during the coldest months of the year. It sounds cozy, until you realize that being indoors all the time can be detrimental for your mental health. The reason why you’re cancelling plans and deleting your dating apps may have little to do with self-care and more to do with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — a type of depression that occurs during the colder months. 

According to a 2013 study published in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers found that those who struggle with a mental illness typically experience more severe symptoms during the colder months. However, during the summer months, these same people are able to better cope by getting outside with friends, basking in the sun, and exercising outdoors. Without much sunlight, the study found, we can become more easily fatigued and zapped of our energy. 

While SAD is a mental illness caused by seasonal weather patterns that can affect anyone, researchers in the 2013 study found that other illnesses like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and bipolar disorder are also affected by weather in their own ways. According to Dr. Sean Zager, a board-certified family physician with Paloma Health, SAD tends to affect women more than men and is most severe during January and February, as well as for those who live further away from the equator. 

Ahead, learn more about how cold weather affects our mental health.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

People may experience SAD — which can result in depression, fatigue, and social withdrawal — when there is less sunlight during the colder months. Sunlight helps us produce serotonin, which boosts our mood and helps us focus. On top of this, during the darker months, our melatonin (the hormone that impacts our sleep) levels can decrease and mess with our routine even more. That’s why it’s important to get outside in order to catch any amount of sunlight that you can, even when the cold weather makes hibernating feel like the best option. 

“Many people start to feel down when the weather is colder, the days are shorter, and life looks a little more bleak than in the bustling spring and summer months,” Natalie Capano, MHC-LP, from Cobb Psychotherapy says. Those who are severely affected by cold weather may even move to a warmer climate to try to resolve the issue, Capano explains. 

How to Cope During the Colder Months

Moving across the country is obviously not a realistic option for most people. Thankfully, there are many ways to brighten up your home and lifestyle when you can’t access sunlight so easily outdoors. 

“Use warm lighting around your home. The orange glow from a salt lamp is comforting and more aesthetically pleasing than a harsh fluorescent light,” says Capano. You’ll also benefit from exercising regularly to avoid feeling slumped. “Go to a gym, watch home workouts online, or even bundle up and take a brisk walk to get your blood flowing,” she adds. If you can afford a quick sunny getaway, try to plan a trip that you can look forward to in the dead of winter. 

If you're working from home, try to position your home office near the window, suggests Zager. You can also use a bright light therapy box, which is now considered the first-line therapy for SAD after research in the 1980s discovered its effectiveness in reducing depressive symptoms in patients. “Studies have actually shown that light therapy at the right frequencies and exposures improves serotonin and norepinephrine levels [which are crucial to wellbeing],” he says. Of course, light therapy isn’t an exact substitute for natural sunlight, but it’s a great alternative when outdoor light is scarce. 

The winter is also a great time to either begin or continue going to therapy on a regular basis – they can help you maintain healthy habits during this time and explore medication if necessary. Other remedies, like taking Vitamin D supplements and consistent sleep, can also help people with depression during the winter months. Zager also tells patients to pursue activities that give them meaning, like volunteering in their community or working on a home renovation project, to ward off feelings of isolation. 

Whether you’re just looking to hibernate more during the winter or struggle with SAD, sunlight is important for your mental health, sleep, and energy levels. Staying inside because it’s cold can quickly turn into SAD if you’re not mindful about getting outside and actively socializing with the people you love. If you’re feeling more depressed, tired, and lousy during the coldest months of the year and find that the above suggestions aren’t helping, a doctor can help you evaluate the best course of action depending on your individualized symptoms. 

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414 and subscribing to our bi-monthly newsletter here.

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