A longitudinal study examining the patterns of depressive symptomology demonstrated that individuals with depression tended to report elevated symptoms during winter. So if you often experience low mood during this time, you are definitely not alone.
What causes us to potentially experience moderately lower mood during the winter months? Well, the main factor is the overall change in our circadian rhythms (that is, our biological/body clocks) due to a shift in durations and patterns of lightness and darkness. Our bodies and brains are very sensitive to environmental conditions – mainly for survival reasons. The light from the sun throughout the day tells our bodies that it is time to be alert, as this is also the safest time for us to be out and about. Daytime is when our visual systems are able to function most effectively in order to find food and detect predators. It is also when our fellow humans are awake – so it is a pretty useful time to be conscious. During winter, the amount of daylight is reduced, which often leaves us feeling sleepy and introspective because our environment is essentially telling us that it’s time to go into ‘hibernation mode’. If we’re spending lots of time alone indoors, we’re probably not socializing or exercising as much as we normally would. These behaviours are really important for our mental health. Therefore, it’s no surprise that many of us experience a dip in our mental wellbeing during winter.
Looking after our mental health during winter
This involves the basic things we need to do each day to maintain our health and wellbeing such as drinking water, eating a wide variety of nourishing foods, eating at regular intervals, getting enough sleep, engaging in joyful movement, taking time to rest and connecting with others. These might seem obvious or overly simple, but they can make a big difference to how we feel. We’ve got to make sure the basic, everyday things are covered before we can even think about tackling the bigger things in life.
See the positives
Winter may be cold and gloomy, but there are some things I really like about it. I like hot drinks, big coats, being inside with the heater on while watching the rain, watching movies, reading books – you get the picture. What I’m saying is, although this season can take its toll on our mental health, it has its strengths – and it’s important to recognize them.
Increase vitamin D intake
With the sun hiding it can be easy to get low vitamin D levels and this can really affect the way we feel. In fact, there is some research to suggest that vitamin D may play a role in preventing and treating depression. Therefore, it may be helpful to consume lots of foods rich in vitamin D, such as dairy products and fish, as well as perhaps even taking a supplement.
Winter feels like a time to isolate ourselves – we don’t feel like going out and may desire solitude. That’s ok because we all need time to recharge. It’s important, however, to maintain our connections with friends and loved ones even if this occurs less frequently than in the warmer months. Take advantage of ‘winter activities’ like movie nights, board games, cooking etc.
It is estimated that approximately 3% of the general population suffers from a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This is essentially a form of season-specific depression, which is most commonly reported in winter. If you tend to experience depressive symptoms that interfere with your daily functioning, or cause distress during a specific season, I encourage you to speak to your GP or EAP Provider about your concerns. There are many effective treatment options available, such as, Light Therapy, which is a relatively new intervention that involves exposing individuals to light at certain times to try compensate for the effects of increased levels of darkness on circadian rhythms during the colder months.