The one constant of time is that nothing stays the same. This is true of our relationships, jobs, preferences, and of course, our mental health. Mental health is prone to changing dramatically with little warning, and the seasonal shifts that happen every year are major provokers of these adjustments. Major changes in our environments can make it harder to maintain our mental health where we want it to be. Depending on where you live, seasonal variations might have a different effect on how your world looks, but there is no denying that within the realm of mental health, the changing seasons have a major impact.
What causes mental health changes?
There are multiple factors that influence us, including weather, sunlight, and environment.
There is a reason that in movies, rain indicates sadness and sunny days bring around a good mood. The weather everyday impacts how we feel. In the summer, when it is comfortable to be outside, people tend to spend more time in nature, feel more connected to the community of people they can see from their windows, and enjoy the warm climate. When winter comes around, dappling sun rays turn into snowfall, and suddenly going outside requires cushioning yourself with layers to protect you from the major health risks of hanging out outside.
The second big impact is sunlight. In the summer, days are longer, which means that the sun rises earlier and sets later. It stays warm longer, and you are more likely to be exposed to sunlight in the morning and throughout the day, a proven way to stay awake and energized. In the winter, there are fewer hours of sunlight in a day. The sun sleeps longer, so when you wake up, you have to rely on your own self to energize and alert you to the morning. This has impacts that last all day, and cause you to be more tired.
Finally, the environment can change our mindset and wellness. Winter brings massive changes to the way the world looks and feels. When days get shorter and colder, the brilliant greens of leaves and grass fade into shades of brown and gray. Animals hide away and burrow, and people do the same. We turn up the heat and close into our individual homes.
What happens to our brains?
All of the above factors change your mood and mental health overall. The lack of sunlight and community can cause people to be more tired and disconnected, which puts you at a higher risk for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression associated with seasonal changes. According to the NIMH, SAD may be associated with reduced serotonin in the winter, or an increase in levels of melatonin, a hormone which regulates the circadian rhythm. When either of these hormones gets thrown off, it can put an imbalance in all kinds of areas of your life. Piling other stressors on top of this is a recipe for disaster. Especially around the holidays, many people experience increased pressure, family time, and financial stress. If you are concerned that you may be experiencing extreme symptoms or SAD, do not hesitate to troubleshoot. Compare your symptoms with those listed on the Mayo Clinic website, and make an appointment to talk to a mental health professional if your symptoms linger. Especially in these COVID years, there is an increased risk of more extreme cases of SAD. Luckily, the treatments remain the same.
How can I prevent these changes?
Like any mental health issue, there are multiple approaches to combat emotional adjustments. It can be as simple as scheduling time to see friends and connect into your week. In other cases, diet and exercise can make a huge difference. Exercise naturally regulates your hormones and body functions, and improves blood flow through the brain, which is a good way to regulate your mood. Another crucial element of wellbeing is a regular sleep schedule. If you go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, you benefit from good sleep, and you gain the ability to schedule around predictable sleep. If your sleep quality is lacking, consider naps. Structure gives your brain a sense of purpose. Even something as manageable as a water challenge.
If your symptoms do not clear up with the implementation of routine, diet, exercise, and sleep regulation, you may consider pursuing other options. We recommend reaching out and scheduling a check in with a medical professional. Even just one visit can help you understand what steps you can take, and how severe your experience is.
No matter what, taking care of yourself is always the number one priority. When you fill your own cup, it is easy to practice wellbeing and take steps to ensure that you stay on top of your fluctuating mental health in changing environments.