A Winter Wonderland … Is It Really?

As we get into winter, and the colder months, you may hear people talking about the “winter blues” they experience every year, or even how they experience “cabin fever” toward the end of winter and just have to get outside. But are these things real? The short answer is yes. These things are very real, and affect many, many people and knowing a bit about how they happen can help if you find yourself dealing with a case of the winter blues, or even some cabin fever later in the season.

For many people, winter is a tough time. The shorter days, the longer nights, and even the lower temperatures, can affect us pretty significantly. We may be cooped up inside due to temperatures or weather conditions, and start to feel a bit off. We may also become more irritable, or even a bit depressed. So what’s causing this change in our moods? Well, among other factors, our circadian rhythms are to blame.

Get Some Rhythm
You have probably heard about the circadian rhythm, and how it regulates our sleep-wake cycles. And this is true, but the sleep-wake circadian rhythm is only one of several “internal body clocks” or “biological clocks” that we have. We also have rhythms which regulate our moods, our hunger signaling, when we release hormones and which ones, and even our body temperature. Though it’s true that many organs and tissues in our bodies have their own individual body clocks, they are all regulated by a cluster of nerve cells in our brains — about 20,000 of them, actually — that make up our “master body clock.”

This master body clock is located in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, and receives direct input from the eyes. Why is this important? Because the amount of light entering our eyes affects how our body regulates energy, mood, and sleepiness. Less light entering our eyes means our bodies produce more melatonin “the sleep hormone” which makes us drowsy. This is why we get sleepy at night, and also why we may even experience an afternoon energy slump. And, in winter, with the shorter days and lower sun angle, we have less light exposure. Combined with our individual genetics and biochemistry, this shift can definitely affect our mental health.

There are some simple things to try in order to help counter some of these effects, especially those directly impacting mood and mental health:

  • Try to exercise daily, ideally outdoors, as this increases the amount of sunlight exposure. Exercise is a fantastic outlet for stress, and 30 minutes per day helps your body release endorphins (our “happy hormones”).
  • Eat healthfully. It’s easy to fall back on comfort eating, but these foods rarely offer good nutritional support and some may even trigger energy or mood crashes after the fact. So, while the occasional indulgence won’t hurt, try to stick to a balanced and healthful eating plan.
  • Meditate. Meditation has been shown to decrease symptoms in people suffering from depression and anxiety, and has even shown positive benefits in improving general health. Sessions as short as 10 minutes every other day may be enough, though individuals may do better with daily meditations. Those who have difficulty quieting their minds may benefit from guided meditations, or even using meditation apps.

When To Get Help
While it is very possible to create a solid, healthful routine and eating plan to stave off the winter blues, for certain individuals this may not be enough. It may be necessary to enlist the help of a professional to help manage symptoms and get a handle on the mood and mental health changes. Some concerning signs that indicate a need to contact a professional are:

  • Depressed mood most of the day
  • Decreased interest or pleasure in activities that you used to enjoy
  • Difficulty sleeping, or sleeping more than usual
  • Moving slower, or feeling more hyperactive, during the day
  • Feeling tired and less energetic
  • Feeling worthless or excessively guilty
  • More difficulty concentrating than usual
  • Thoughts of death, suicide, or harming others

If you notice these symptoms in yourself, or in someone you know, please contact a professional immediately.

Depression and anxiety can come on in any season, but the shifts in circadian rhythms during the winter may increase the possibility of becoming depressed or anxious, or both. Knowing some of the factors that contribute can help, and there is no shame in reaching out to get some help. Remember: You are not alone.

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