Can winter actually make people feel sad? It’s a good question, as there are some interesting facts about winter and mental health.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a legitimate form of depression. Winter can often feel like the days are only a few hours long, and the nights so cold you don’t want go outside.
Even though seasonal affective disorder is associated with winter, it isn't really related to colder temperatures. It's actually tied to the light-dark cycle, like when it starts getting dark super early. Therefore for many people, winter can bring a drop in mood, energy and motivation.
According to psychologist Kelly Rohan, professor and director of clinical training at the University of Vermont in the US, seasonal affective disorder is a subset of major depressive disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
The difference between seasonal affective disorder and other types of depression is that it follows a seasonal pattern, which means the symptoms are present in certain months but completely absent in others.
Seasonal affective disorder also has to do with your job. With shorter days, many of us will go to work before its light, spend the day inside and then possibly leave after the sun goes down. Therefore we are not getting enough sunlight and may be more at risk of getting seasonal affective disorder.
Psychologist Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts, believes symptoms can include sadness, disinterest in things you used to find enjoyable, significant change in sleep patterns or appetite, feeling lethargic or fatigued, irritability and difficulty concentrating.
People who already suffer from depression are more at risk of their symptoms worsening during winter months. Those people will need to take precautions by seeking out their medical practitioners. GPs will provide support in monitoring the condition as well as one’s dosage of any anti-depression medications, possibly increasing intake to take into account seasonal adjustments. According to HelpGuide.org, up to 20 per cent of the population has reported feeling the winter blues. So what can you do to help fend them off?
To begin with, start moving! Dr Jacqueline Gollan, associate professor in psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Northwestern University in the US says getting at least 20 minutes of vigorous activity four times a week has been shown to reduce depressive moods. This can be accomplished by joining a gym to do your working out, riding your bike or running up and down the stairs.
A March 2015 article in the Journal of the National Sleep Foundation suggests it’s best to stick with a regular sleep schedule, waking up at the same times on weekdays and weekends. Also, establish a routine wake-up time and a soothing bedtime ritual, allowing three or four weeks to get used to it, as it’s important to get at least seven hours of sleep every night for your overall health.
Dr Susan Kleiner, author of The Good Mood Diet, recommends drinking hot cocoa in the evening to prepare you for sleep. Make it with fortified milk – which provides a combination of carbohydrate, protein, and vitamin D – as this combination helps increase serotonin levels, which help us relax. Dr Kleiner also recommends eating fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, trout or sardines three to five times a week, as this can help boost mood. These are not the only things one can do. there are others like planning mini-getaways closer to home.
Even though seasonal affective disorder is associated with winter ... it's actually tied to the light-dark cycle, like when it starts getting dark super early.
Go out to eat at a new or different restaurant. How about a spin around the local roller rink? What about one of the many local day spas for some light therapy, which can actually help regulate your body's circadian rhythms – often referred to as the body clock – and the natural release of hormones that help you feel energised.
Finally, psychologist Morag Paterson from MindFrame Psychology in Sydney says simply doing some simple pleasurable things like socialising with friends, going to the movies, listening to music, watching your favourite comedies or setting yourself little goals to achieve can all play a role in helping people be less SAD during winter.
Dr Anthony Perrone is college counsellor at Trinity Anglican College. The views expressed are Dr Perrone's and not necessarily those of Trinity Anglican College.