I Feel… Good? How Season Changes Impact Mental Health

As the seasons change, so too do our moods. I bet the entire upper Midwest feels just how real that statement is right now. We’ve jumped between 80 degree days packed with sunshine, to snow and cold, and back again. As we face yet another gray day, we catch ourselves muttering something like “I NEED the sun to come back out”. It’s common to experience changes in our mental health as the seasons shift, but what does science have to stay about it all? Let’s take a look.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of clinical depression that follows a distinct, seasonal pattern. Those diagnosed with SAD experience classic depressive symptoms (think: low mood and motivation, irritability, sleep problems, low energy, difficulty concentrating, etc.), that dissipate after 4-5 months when seasons change. SAD during winter is linked to reduced exposure to sunlight that happens when the span of daylight hours become shorter, and the time between dusk and dawn lengthen.  And for those of us living in areas with more extreme weather fluctuations? You guessed right, we’re at a greater risk of developing SAD. If you notice shifting moods that make it tricky to stick to your daily routine, spend time with friends, or perform well at work, connecting with a professional to learn more about SAD could be life saving.

Sounds SAD, But Maybe It’s Not?

It’s true; not all seasonal changes in mood, energy levels, or emotion patterns mean you have SAD. But if it’s not SAD, then what is it? And why does it still deserve attention?

Research has shown that changes in daylight patterns can cause shifts in our circadian rhythms. These rhythms are biological processes that occur on a 24-hour cycle, and include things like sleep/wake cycles, hormone production, and changes in body temperature. These integral rhythms keep our bodies in working order when given context cues about our environment. Shifts in how much light we take in, when we absorb it, or even what type of light, can have big impacts on how well we function. Our energy levels can drop, focus and concentration go to sh*t, and overall mood stability can tank.

Shifts like this can also be linked to reminders that seasons bring to the table. Significant research has come out in the past decade pointing to our bodies’ ability to remember events, emotions, or traumas, long after we’ve pushed it out of our minds. As we approach seasons where these traumas or events occurred, we might start to notice mood changes that may look similar to SAD. And although the practices listed above will be helpful, it doesn’t negate how important it is to seek out professional support. Working with a professional to process those events may lead to greater stability during difficult seasons.

What to do

You’ve probably heard this advice a million times, but count me in to really hit home the point: these things matter! To combat the effects of changes in daylight, consider inducting these practices into your daily grind:

  • Go outside as much as you can during daylight hours
  • Maintain regular meal times to consistently nourish your body during waking hours
  • Avoid caffeine late in the day
  • Exercise regularly; with special focus on cardio
  • Avoid screens right before bedtime
  • Create calming rituals before bedtime (think: journaling or reading, yoga, meditation or a warm shower).

The Sun Came Out, but Now I Feel Worse?

For some, springtime is exciting as their mental health soars. Their energy levels rise, and they shed the ick that winter brought on. For others, springtime can be a season of upheaval for their mental health. At first glance this seems to go against the grain with a ‘traditional’ SAD diagnosis, but it’s actually incredibly common to experience. There hasn’t been proven causation between declining mental health and springtime, but some evidence points to its link to social pressure to feel good as days lengthen, daylight savings time, and various environmental changes like pollen, and increased pollutants.

Changes you notice are important, regardless of the season you find yourself in. Even if they follow a different pattern than what your friends, neighbors, or family members experience, it doesn’t mean they deserve to be discredited. It’s worth the time to investigate what’s going on, and make changes that keep you afloat during any season of struggle.

The Way Forward

Seasonal changes have an effect on our mental health in ways we often don’t realize—from shifts in sleep patterns and hormones production levels related to sunlight exposure, all the way up to more severe symptoms associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). While more research is needed on how best address these issues from both medical professionals and individuals alike, it’s important for us all to build a better understanding of how seasonal changes impact our mental health. Greater awareness equals a greater ability to step  confidently into living life on our own terms. 

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