Why is it that mental health symptoms are generally worse for many people during the winter months?  Good question.  Much of it has to do with the lack of sunshine.  So, you may ask, what does sunlight exposure have to do with mental health?  Long story short, one of the main chemicals released in our bodies to improve our mood is Serotonin, and some of the effects of Serotonin are triggered by how much sunlight our eyes actually receive.  As the days are shorter and it is colder outside, most of us don’t get outdoors as much as we would otherwise do.  Thus, we receive less sunlight which results in less Serotonin which results in increased depression or anxiety, as well as other manifestations.  

An adjunct problem during winter time comprises of our reduced motivation to be physically healthy.  Truly, who wants to go outdoors to exercise?  It’s cold outside, and excusing ourselves with a good book, a warm drink and curling up with a warm blanket sound so much more delightful.  Unfortunately, not exercising doesn’t satisfy our overall well-being, and more we are vulnerable to emotional difficulties.  When we don’t continue our exercise regimen, we limit the release of endorphins which actually is used to relieve tension or stress and boost our physical and mental energy.  

During winter months, we also tend to eat more with added junk food and carbohydrates.  As we become more absorbed with food and feel the added weight, our self-esteem is usually affected.  Having a negative self-image also impacts how you look at yourself; causes intimacy difficulties and you are more prone to depression and anxiety.  Also, our sleep cycles change during the winter months., impacting our REM sleep which helps us regulate our mood and process emotional experiences.  Without REM sleep, we are more susceptible to increased emotional reactivity and emotional problems.  

In view of all this, it almost feels like things are stacked against us when we face winter.  Of course, that doesn’t take into consideration the delight of winter-time and all those not affected by mood changes; most of us are here because we have chosen to be here.  However, those that are struggling with increased emotional difficulties during the wintertime, here are some things you can do to make it through: 

  • Eat right
  • Exercise regularly
  • Get more sun; that means getting outside at least half hour each day, like it or not.  Also, people diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder benefit from a light box which simulates actual light.
  • Get sufficient sleep; be it going to bed early to get 8 hours in, developing a bedtime routine, or using supports like candles, meditation, reading, essential oils, massage, etc.
  • Get into projects or activities that you might like, even if you don’t feel like it
  • Socialize more with others
  • Work on your New Year’s resolutions or develop goals and plans to complete them

When the light isn’t shining, do what you can to still have a good winter.

Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW, LICSW