The winter months can be challenging for a number of people. While some love it for festive events and chilly weather, many notice a dip in their mental health and overall well-being.
With shorter, darker days, winter can lead to significant mood changes and seriously affect how we feel. Feeling down or anxious during winter is commonly referred to as the winter blues.
Why Does Winter Affect Mental Health?
The exact reason why more people feel depressed in the winter months is unclear; however, it is often linked to reduced sunlight. During autumn and winter, the days steadily shorten, resulting in less sunlight and disturbed circadian rhythm – the body’s biological clock – which, in turn, can affect sleep quality and contribute to more depression and anxiety symptoms.
Circadian rhythm, which relies on light to regulate itself, is a 24-hour cycle that dictates when the body gets tired and wakes up. It also determines the production of proteins to match the typical timing of meals while helping to regulate hormones to match energy expenditure.
During winter, the decrease in sunlight can negatively impact the circadian rhythm. As the sun sets earlier, it can signal to the body that it is nighttime, contributing to fatigue throughout the day.
Melatonin is a sleep hormone released by the pineal gland in the brain. It also plays a significant role in regulating the circadian rhythm, and as night draws in quicker, more melatonin is produced to prepare the body for sleep.
The lack of sunlight throughout the winter can also affect vitamin D production. Both sunlight and dietary intake produce vitamin D, and levels can drop when sunlight is limited during the winter months. As vitamin D plays a role in serotonin production (a brain chemical that helps to regulate mood) a lack of it can significantly impact mental health.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression, is a condition that usually arises in autumn and winter and resolves in spring. It is influenced by the changing seasons and can be debilitating for many people. The symptoms are similar to depression and can include:
- Low mood
- Loss of interest in hobbies
- Withdrawal from loved ones
- A sense of hopelessness
- An inability to focus at work
The cold weather and working hours can mean people do not get much sunlight, and although many people notice a dip in their mood during winter, SAD is a more severe and diagnosable condition. Around three in every hundred people in the U.K. struggle with SAD annually.
Maintaining Mental Health
Despite the challenges of winter, there are several ways that people can support their mental health and reduce the symptoms of seasonal depression:
- Sunshine – natural light is a big mood booster. It can reduce fatigue, promote better sleep, and encourage higher dopamine levels. When the winter sun is shining, getting out for a walk or opening a few blinds can help combat low mood. Along with mental health benefits, sunshine has many physical health benefits for the cardiovascular and immune systems. Since the body and mind are closely linked, when one is feeling better, the other usually will too.
- Light therapy lamp – winter is characterised by cloudy, rainy days. When there is no sun, a light therapy lamp can fill the gap and provide bright light that mimics sunlight to help the brain release mood-boosting chemicals. Recent research around light therapy found that even a one-hour light session can improve symptoms of seasonal depression. Many different types of lamps are available, so consult a doctor for more information on which one may be right for you.
- Schedule some activities – cold weather can make it challenging to get out, stay active, or see loved ones. However, scheduling some activities can help bring joy and combat social withdrawal and hopelessness, two common symptoms of SAD.
- Lifestyle changes – SAD can make it more challenging to maintain a healthy diet and regular exercise. However, maintaining these activities can improve symptoms of seasonal depression and make it easier to manage. Eating well, having a consistent sleep pattern, and exercising for thirty minutes daily can all contribute to better mental health during the winter months.
SAD symptoms tend to reduce during spring; however, some people can become anxious throughout the summer months as they worry about them returning. As a result, the impact of SAD can be severe, and self-care isn’t always enough.
Past trauma and mental health conditions that deplete serotonin levels can put people at greater risk for developing SAD. Based on the type and severity of your symptoms, a doctor will advise you on the best course of treatment. This may involve using a mix of treatments to achieve the optimum results. A combination of psychotherapy and light treatment may be used to help individuals, while others may also benefit from antidepressant medication.
If you have a client or know of someone struggling with anything you have read in this blog, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).
 Melrose S. Seasonal affective disorder: An overview of assessment and treatment approaches. Depress Res Treat. 2015;2015:178564. doi:10.1155/2015/178564
 “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Royal College of Psychiatrists.” Www.rcpsych.ac.uk, https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/mental-health/problems-disorders/seasonal-affective-disorder-(sad)
 Reeves GM, Nijjar GV, Langenberg P, et al. Improvement in depression scores after 1 hour of light therapy treatment in patients with seasonal affective disorder. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2012;200(1):51-5. PMID: 22210362