Winter and Mental Health - How winter affects our mood - June 2019

As we enter the coldest part of winter, we are reminded of the change of seasons and how this is sometimes believed to affect our moods.  However, contrary to popular belief, there is little scientific evidence to support the theory that weather has any significant affect on human emotions.  Studies by Watson (2000) and Keller et al (2005) found that there was some effect on people's negative moods so if people were depressed the winter tended to make them feel worse.  Denisson et al (2008) suggested the idea of weather affecting our mood may be culturally transmitted.  I wonder about this as having visited some of the Scandanavian countries it seems to me that those who live in cold countries are generally more inclined to depression and are more reserved when interacting with outsiders.  Cooler climates possibly breed cooler people.  It has probably got a lot to do with the lack of daylight in these countries.  One of my Swedish friends noted that there was no such thing as bad weather - just inappropriate clothing.  The stoic Swedes do seem to disregard the weather, venturing out whatever the conditions and this even extends to young children in kinder where it is common to see little ones playing in the rain or snow.  

Dr John Grohol, writing in Psychology Today has discussed the topic of weather and its impact on mood.  He has cited a number of studies which are referred to below.  Hsiang et al (2013) found a link between human aggression and higher temperatures.  As temperatures rose, so does the tendency for more conflicts between people and researchers noted a 14% increase.  The scientists also found interpersonal violence rose by 4%.  These findings held true not only for higher termperatures, but also applied to rain.  The more it rained (especially in areas where high rainful is not expected) the more aggressive people seemed to become.  However, this research could only show a correlation between the two.  It is not at all clear that weather causes these things to occur.  Another study by Marie Connolly (2013) found that women who were interviewed on days "with more rain and higher termperatures reported decreasing life satisfaction.  On days with lower termperatures and no rain, the same subjects reported higher life satisfaction.

While springtime may be the season of hope for many, it is the season of hopelessness for those who are depressed.  Researchers Koskinen et al (2002) found that outdoor workers were far more likely to commit suicide in the spring months than during winter.  For indoor workers in the study, suicides peaked in the summertime.  Studies from both the Northern and Southern hemisphere report a seasonal pattern for suicides with an increase in spring and early summer and a decrease in autumn and winter.  A Swedish study by Makris et al (2013) which looked at suicides in the country between 1992-2003 found a spring-summer seasonal pattern peak for suicides - especially those people being treated with anti depressants. 

It has also been suggested that personality may have a lot to do with how people react to weather.  I know from my own experience that I am one of those people who feel the cold badly and I definitely feel better in the warmer months.  Melbournians are obsessed by the weather and we laugh about our notorious four seasons in one day weather pattern.  How many of us rarely leave the house without checking the forecast so we know how to dress?  Some of you may be dreading the thought of cold, rainy days and grey skies and having to discard your ligher clothes for overcoats and umbrellas.  A small percentage of people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SA), a recognised condition.  However, for the majority of us perhaps it is more about accepting that the change of seasons brings different options and opportunities and it is our attitude to these changes that can help us adjust to weather.  Some ideas about dealing with the winter blues are suggested below.

1.  Indulge yourself

Winter brings opportunities to enjoy lovely hearty foods such as warming casseroles and soups. to hibernate away with a good book or to curl up with friends and partners around a cosy fire (a rare thing these days) and catch up on movies or binge on Netflix.  For many people it is a time to don the colours of their favourite team and enjoy the excitement of the football or to head off up to the snowfields.  If you have the time and can afford it, you may be lucky enough to head north up to the sunshine and escape the worst  of the winter.  

2.  Take time to understand what makes you feel good and engage in self care

Some people find that colour affects their mood.  When we look outside and see the grey clouds we can find ourselves feeling a bit low.  Think about buying yourself a bright, quirky umbrella and some colourful winter items and see the difference it makes.   Surround yourself with bright, happy colours in your home and put away the blacks and greys.  Put on some happy music, take a bubble bath or have a massage.  Do whatever makes you feel good.

3.  Rug up and get outside 

The ability to enjoy the outdoors may have more to do with our moods than the actual terperature, so if you are feeling down, rather than stay cocooned inside, try some exercise - put up that puffer jacket and head off to the park or the beach for a brisk walk along the sand and breathe the fresh air and embrace winter.  If you are lucky enough to have a dog this is a great advantage as we know our furry friends need regular exercise to keep them fit and healthy, just like us, so if you are not naturally motivated to get out in the cold, there is nothing more persuasive than your four legged friend looking pleadingly at you for the daily "walkies"  You will almost always feel better after a vigorous walk.

4.  Make your health a priority

Staying healthy in winter is very important.  If you are sick don't go to work.   You are not likely to be functioning at your best and it is unfair to your work mates to share your germs.   Likewise, if your work colleagues are sick, try to negotiate with your workplace to work from home and avoid exposing yourself to their illnesses.   Productivity is not helped by people being sick and spreading it around.  You may wish to try some preventative treatments and increase your intake of healthy foods and possibly supplements to strengthen your immune system.


5.  Keep active and busy

Time always seems to go faster when you are busy.  Winter can be a good time to do a lot of those inside jobs which we put off.  Identify a task which you have never felt like doing when the weather is warm and you prefer to be outdoors.  It may be sorting out those hundreds of photos you have on your phone which you can never find when you want them, organising your wardrobe or cupboards, decluttering things you dont want or need any longer.  

6.   Make time for people who are less fortunate than you

Winter can be a very miserable time for people who are poor, old, sick or disadvantaged.   It can be a struggle for people to stay warm, pay their bills and access safe living conditions.  For some,  winter can be fatal.  Think about volunteering at a homeless shelter, visiting residents in a nursing home or helping out with meals on wheels.  Any way that you can offer your time and companionship to other people will help you appreciate what you have and how lucky you are.  

7.   Use this time to set goals and plan

Although winter can be a time for hibernation, it can also offer opportunities for thinking about your plans for the warmer months ahead.  Now can be the time to identify activities you want to start, things you want to learn or hobbies or special projects you want to begin.

These are just some of the ways you can make the winter months easier and more enjoyable.  One of the advantages of living in a city which has such variation in its weather is that it never gets boring.  Remember there are only a few short weeks before we will see the blossom start to emerge and the first green leaves of spring.  In the meantime, stay warm and keep moving.










© Dawn Vincent