Does Winter Affect Mental Health Symptoms?

Winter can often be a time that brings about numerous negative mental health symptoms such as depression and anxiety. In the winter, people often experience symptoms that mimic clinical depression but the symptoms are exclusive to the winter season. Winter depression has even been given a medical name known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The symptoms of SAD – seasonal affective disorder – begin in November and typically last through March.

According to a research article published by the University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center, SAD affects more than 500,000 people in the U.S. alone and well beyond that in other parts of the world. Most researchers of SAD conclude that the symptoms have a direct relation to the cold and cloudy shorter days of winter that produce less sunshine than normal. The reduced exposure to sunlight can cause a drop in vitamin D, which is linked to depression.

However, the contributors to SAD go beyond a simple drop in vitamin D. The lack of sunlight can cause chemical imbalances in the brain by negatively affecting neurotransmitters responsible for mood. A reduced amount of the neurotransmitter known as serotonin was found during the winter months potentially causing depressive symptoms.

While SAD has symptoms that mimic clinical depression, they are two different disorders as SAD is exclusive to the winter season while clinical depression is more consistent throughout the seasons. Some of the symptoms of SAD can include the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Sadness
  • Irritability
  • Social withdrawal
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of concentration
  • Over eating
  • Weight gain
  • Suicidal thoughts

People who struggle with anxiety disorders can also have a slightly increased amount of anxiety due to the winter season although the changes are typically minimal. It is important to know how to combat depressive symptoms or other worsened mental health symptoms during the winter.

Consider the following when trying to reduce negative mental health symptoms during the winter:

  • Sunlight is often a key contributor to many of the worsened mental health symptoms during the winter so getting adequate sunlight as much as possible is beneficial. Keeping the shades open and going outside when the sun is out whenever possible can help to increase serotonin levels and improve overall mood. Having proper sunlight within the house can also help a person to feel more awake and reduce the amount of oversleeping that can also negatively affect mood.
  • Exercise plenty as winter is often a time that people exercise less because of the discouraging cold weather outdoors. Going to the gym or finding a new workout routine at home will help release endorphins, which in turn will help elevate levels of happiness.
  • Getting a proper amount of sleep – seven to eight hours every night – is essential to peak mental and physical health.

If symptoms of SAD continue to occur despite all efforts to elevate mood it is important to consult a doctor about possible treatment options. SAD can lead to substance abuse, addiction and even suicidal thoughts if left untreated.