In even the best of scenarios, winter is a challenging time for mental health. During winter, there is less sunlight, the days are shorter and you may also be more socially isolated. That’s especially true this year when we’re still social distancing because of COVID-19. When you’re isolated and worrying about a pandemic, it can lead to changes in eating and sleep patterns, worsening of mental health conditions and an increased use of substances. If you’re starting to think about preparing for another Ohio winter, prepare to protect your mental health as well.
Winter & Mental Health
Seasons play a significant role in our mental health. Our circadian rhythms, which dictate not only sleep-wake cycles but also mood, are disrupted in winter. It gets dark earlier in the day and there are limited daylight hours. For some people, winter may just lead to the blues, but for others, it can cause Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.
Typically, you might combat some of these effects of winter by spending time with friends and loved ones. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has made that more difficult this year. Many people are also continuing to work from home or go to school from home, furthering social isolation.
Understanding how the season can affect your mood and mental health can help you make a plan to take preventative measures, similar to how you would winter-proof your home. This is especially important if you’re in recovery. You may need to consider seasonal adjustments to your relapse prevention plan.
Isolation, Depression & Substance Abuse
Isolation, depression and substance abuse have a relationship to one another. When you’re depressed or isolated, you’re more likely to abuse substances or relapse. For many people, 2020 has brought both isolation and increased levels of depression.
We’re also starting to see data that this leads to an uptick in overdose deaths, following a period of declines. Through the end of August in Ohio, there have been more than 2,000 recorded overdose deaths. That’s nearly a 30% increase from what was reported at the same time last year.
Recognizing Signs of Depression
Seasonal depression or SAD is one subtype of depression. Symptoms of SAD are essentially the same as major depressive disorder. The difference between the two is that symptoms are contained to a season or seasons. Symptoms of SAD can include:
- A depressed mood most of the day
- Problems sleeping or sleeping more than usual
- Low energy
- Lack of concentration
- Loss of interest in activities that you once enjoyed
- Feeling guilty or worthless
Mental Health Tips for the Winter Months in Ohio
There is still uncertainty ahead of us with COVID-19 this winter. You may already be dealing with the personal effects of social distancing and winter weather. The best thing you can do is create a plan for how you can protect and even optimize your mental health throughout the winter. Remember to anticipate potential setbacks in your mental health or your recovery and how you’ll get back on track. Here are a few tips to help.
- Identify your triggers and outline steps you’ll take to deal with them. Many people find writing down triggers helps. You can also write down ways you’ll cope with them in a positive way.
- Create a network that you can trust and rely on, even if you can’t see them in person. Staying connected is critical in recovery, especially now.
- Make your home environment comfortable, safe and positive. Think about decluttering, so you have an organized space to relax and work in.
- Use a lightbox if you’re dealing with SAD symptoms. You can buy a lightbox and use it for around 20 to 30 minutes each day, first thing in the morning. This helps your brain and body stay on track as far as your circadian rhythms and brain chemistry.
- Commit to exercising throughout the winter. With many at-home exercise guides and options available online (many for free!), you can experiment and find new options you enjoy this winter.
- Follow a schedule. Many people are working from home or attending classes from home, but don’t let yourself get off schedule. Schedules are good not only for productivity but also mental health.
Finding Help for Substance Abuse & Mental Health
Due to the ongoing pandemic, The Recovery Village Columbus is now offering telehealth programs to help you safely prioritize your mental health and recovery. Options include teletherapy, which is being offered individually and in a group format, and online recovery meetings.
Contact us today to learn more about available teletherapy options and how they can be integrated into your life and schedule.
Does the Weather Affect Your Mood?
The weather does affect our mood, including our body’s natural clock that regulates mood and our sleep-wake cycles. When it’s winter, it gets dark earlier. That changes our body’s rhythms, but we often keep the same work/life schedules that we have in summer months. You also get less sunlight during winter, which can contribute to depression.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is a type of depression. For most people, it begins in the fall and tends to subside in spring.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder can include reduced sunlight and less overall outdoor exposure. Other causes may include genetics and having other underlying mental health disorders. For example, if you already have depression, it may worsen in winter.
How Much Winter Sun Exposure Do You Need for Mental Health?
If possible, you should aim to get anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes of sun on your exposed skin such as your hands, arms, and face several times a week. If this isn’t possible where you live, you could consider light therapy. A light therapy box will replicate natural sunlight. That then stimulates your brain to increase its production of serotonin and reduce excess melatonin.
- Harm Reduction Ohio. “Special COVID Report: Ohio overdose deaths rise estimated 29 in first half of 2020.” August 13, 2020. Accessed November 9, 2020.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coping with Stress.” July 1, 2020. Accessed November 9, 2020.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.