When winter hits in full force, even the best of us can feel a little down. Whether we realize it or not, weather affects mood – and for many of us, the winter blues elude self-control.
Cold weather and shorter days alter brain and other metabolic chemistry. The hormones melatonin and serotonin control energy and feelings, for instance, with the former affecting sleep and the latter influencing mood. In the colder, darker winter months, the brain produces more melatonin, which can make many of us feel tired, and less serotonin, which can make many of us feel gloomy. For some, unfortunately, the cold proves unmanageable, resulting in seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
For some parents suffering from SAD, winter weather and school snow days can cause even more moodiness. The thought of leaving the house, entertaining the kids and putting on snow clothes can be simply too much. Moreover, when instant messages start inviting families outside to play, build snowmen or sit around a fire, moms and dads may feel even more stressed, being forced to face how lousy they feel compared to the happy friends and neighbors around them.
Further complicating many people’s moods during this time of year are widespread post-holiday blues. The gifts have been unwrapped, the cookies have been baked (and eaten) and the holiday decorations have been boxed. Instead of reflecting on joyous memories, though, some folks dwell on unmet expectations, feel guilty over holiday overindulgences and miss the energy and social aspects of the season.
Although SAD and the post-holiday blues remain real concerns for many, the outlook isn’t as cloudy as it sounds. Many easy fixes can improve sufferers’ moods. Exercise can provide immediate stress relief that lasts long after a workout ends, for instance. Also, eating nutrient-rich foods energizes the body and promotes feelings of healthiness. Otherwise, going outside can improve people’s emotional states, as sunlight provides vitamin D, a natural mood enhancer.
In addition to physically healthy behaviors, being social improves negative winter emotions. Keep a mental list of special people in your life who always remain happy to talk; something as simple as a phone call or a chat over coffee (in addition to a nice email or text) can brighten anyone’s day.
Even if you don’t suffer from SAD, winter weather often causes some mild depression, lack of motivation or low energy. Don’t despair; rather, recognize your emotions and do something about them. If, however, your low mood persists, reach out to a mental health professional or your family doctor for extra support. Although spring may lurk just around the corner – fingers crossed – winter months can seem even colder than they already are if you experience ongoing blue moods.
Prior to going into private practice as a psychotherapist and learning-disabilities specialist, Russell Hyken, Ph.D., Ed.S., M.A., LPC, NCC, worked for more than 15 years as an English teacher, school counselor and school administrator. Visit him online at ed-psy.com.