Maintaining Good Mental Health in the Winter Months

Winter can exacerbate pre-existing mental health issues, and it can bring on seasonal affective disorder. Learn what to watch for.

woman lying in bed

Gone are the warm spring and summer nights, replaced with shorter days and longer nights. Winter is, indeed, here.

On top of our normal seasonal transition, we’re still in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions and fears that come with it.

We spoke with Logan Winkelman, PhD, LPC-S, NCC, Program Director and Assistant Professor of the Clinical Counseling and Mental Health department of the TTUHSC School of Health Professions. We discussed why the winter months can have a negative impact on our mental health as well as steps to take to protect ourselves from emotional valleys during these times.

How Winter Can Affect Mental Health

“Winter is unique,” Winkelman begins. “Shorter days mean being outside less, and the sun has gone down by the time you’re getting done with work.”

She points out that many professionals are now working remotely and not leaving their houses during daytime hours. During this season, weather and obligations can make taking a walk feel like a challenge.

“Serotonin decreases during winter months, and it can be a recipe for concerning symptoms,” Winkelman says.

During winter months, we’re exposed to more physical illnesses like colds, flu, allergies and of course COVID-19. Many underlying conditions can be exacerbated seemingly out of the blue, especially if you’re not tapped into body awareness, according to Winkelman.

“When we go into autopilot, we do it to save energy,” she explains. “A lot of times we stop paying attention to the warning signs our body is giving us. Things can compile and compound.”

The lack of outdoor activities this time of year can lead to more crowded indoor environments like shopping centers, restaurants and gyms. These crowds, especially in the midst of a pandemic, can heighten the anxiety and stress that was already present or create it from scratch.

Winkelman compares her holiday season to the film Four Christmases, which captures the frantic and futile nature of making everyone happy around the holidays.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

woman working at a desktop computer

Many of us have heard of the condition seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Winkelman says it is important to not only understand this condition, but to understand its reality and intensity.

“The key is understanding that it exists,” she stresses. “It’s a real diagnosis that affects your mood.”

And the winter months exacerbate those symptoms with less sunlight, more anxiety, less nutritious foods and less exercise.

“It’s an actual diagnosis, and if you’re having symptoms you should see a physician,” Winkelman says.

What are the warning signs of SAD? Winkelman recommends listening to your mood.

“We want to look at changes in mood and the frequency of those symptoms,” she explains.

Are you depressed most of the day? Is it typical or atypical? Decreased interest in activities or things that typically give one pleasure is a red flag along with difficulty sleeping or changes in sleep patterns.

“Because we get less sunlight, our bodies tend to want to sleep more,” she says. “If it’s disruptive to your typical behavior, that’s a sleep disruption. We want to pay attention to our sleep patterns because so much of our mood and emotions are regulated by our circadian rhythms. Seven to eight hours is still a good number for adults, but it depends on the individual and the situation they are in.”

The goal is consecutive hours of sleep so that your body can reset. Winkelman teaches her students the importance of “sleep hygiene,” or creating a space that is conducive to healthy sleep. It should be dark and cool with no distractions.

Winter Can Exacerbate Pre-Existing Issues

Many of us deal with ongoing mental health issues throughout the year, and Winkelman is quick to point out that mental health is physical health. She references PTSD as an example.

“With these winter times, a lot of the symptoms associated with that diagnosis [PTSD] can be intensified,” she says.

Those suffering with bipolar disorder can experience more symptoms of depression during the winter months, like feelings of hopelessness and frustration. Likewise, Winkelman cites a study that found a connection between Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and increased sensitivity during the winter.

With so much of the holiday season centered around food, those suffering with eating disorders and body insecurities may feel triggered when they’re around people they haven’t seen in a long time.

Have a Plan During Winter for Good Mental Health

woman standing in the cold with a hood on

“It’s really important to have a plan for the holidays so you can mitigate the effects of wintertime,” Winkelman recommends. She recommends getting one hour a day of outdoor light and planning physical activity. She also recommends eating as healthy as possible.

“When heading to a holiday dinner, think of the foods that are going to nourish your body,” she says. And enjoy everything else in moderation.

It’s vital to maintain social support in this time. Ask for help and use an accountability partner. Winkelman recommends leaning on a friend, classmate, family member or partner. She also suggests offering your help to others. Helping people is always a way out of a negative thought or situation.

Winkelman says that research shows light therapy, or phototherapy, is an effective treatment for the winter blues or SAD. If you’re in a climate that makes getting outside impossible or difficult, look for lamps that mimic outdoor light and help maintain circadian rhythms.

Sometimes, even with proactive steps and thinking ahead, these symptoms will need additional support from a qualified healthcare professional. If nothing else is helping and you feel stuck, it may be time to speak with a doctor or counselor.

It’s important to remember that you are not alone, she says. One positive outcome of the pandemic has been the rise of telemedicine. It’s now easy to access mental healthcare from wherever you are.

Mental Health Warning Signs to Watch for in Others

Winkelman says that a sense of hopelessness or worthlessness are thoughts that can lead to suicidal ideation, as these negative narratives get compounded upon. Frequent and significant mood changes are also an indication of mental health distress.
“If you’re not typically easily agitated, but something makes you blow a gasket, pay attention to those reactions,” Winkelman says. “Our bodies are trying to tell us things. We just might not be present enough to listen.”

Other signs of SAD or the winter blues include:

  • Social withdrawal
  • Changes in appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Thoughts of death, suicide or harming yourself or others

Winkelman stresses the importance of paying attention to these signs, no matter the time of year. If you don’t know what to do, contact your healthcare professional and/or Google suicide and crisis help lines to find support.

She also adds that we mustn’t forget our pets during the winter months.

“Our dogs need sunshine, too!”

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