Seasonal Affective Disorder

Cold Weather and Anxiety (and How to Address it)

March 27, 2019


Colder temperatures and shorter days make doing anything in the winter that much harder. Even bracing the cold to walk to your car from the office is tiring. After that, all you want to do is lay in bed. By the time you wake up from an afternoon nap and are ready to do anything, it’s already dark. It’s easy for the lethargy of daily life in winter to get you stressed out, along with other conditions such as Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a mental disorder characterized by depressive symptoms that occur at the same time every year. It’s easy for this condition to be swept under the rug because sufferers often think it’s a case of the “winter blues.” But science shows it’s much more than that.

According to Alison Kerry of the mental health charity Mind, shorter daylight hours in the winter cause people with SAD to produce higher levels of melatonin, which leads to lethargy and other depressive symptoms. Reduced sunlight messes with your biological clock, which also causes those symptoms.

But SAD isn’t all depression. Additional symptoms include feelings of hopelessness and anxiety. Keep reading to find out:

  • Why cold weather causes anxiety
  • What you can do to treat it

Don’t mistake something deeper for just a case of the “winter blues.” Talk with your doctor about your symptoms to see which course of action is best for you.

man on floor with head down
Discover the link between cold weather and anxiety.

Why Cold Weather Causes Anxiety

In addition to being a pain, cold weather can have more extensive effects on your day-to-day life. There are a few specific things that come with cold weather that can contribute to your wintry anxiety.

Lifestyle Changes

Cold weather tends to keep you inside more than in the warm, long summer days—unless you’re brave and willing to bundle up for your morning run. This decrease in physical activity inhibits your blood flow, which can lead to inflammation, which indicates depressive symptoms in the brain.

Because you’re not going outdoors as often, you’re getting a substantially lowered daily intake of vitamin D. Even when you are outside, it’s likely you’re bundled up and have covered as much of your skin as possible, even further limiting vitamin D intake. Your body absorbs vitamin D when UVB rays come in contact with your skin, and those rays can’t penetrate the atmosphere as easily when the sun doesn’t rise as high in the sky during the winter months.

How does this relate to anxiety? Vitamin D triggers the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. Vitamin D receptors are also located in regions of the brain linked to depression. Basically, lack of sunlight exposure during the winter months can disrupt your body’s release of neurotransmitters related to anxiety and depression.

woman in the snow with her arms out
One way to cope with winter anxiety is to bundle up and actually go outside, despite how much frigid temperatures make you want to just stay in bed.

How to Cope with Winter Anxiety

As easy as it is to snuggle up with blankets—and your anxiety—during the cold winter months, it’s important to focus on activities and thoughts that help make you feel better. Here are some things you can do to feel less anxious while waiting for spring.

Healthy Diet

Winter days mean lots of sugar and carbs to curb short term cravings and lethargy. There’s nothing wrong with indulging in a hot chocolate or mac and cheese on a snow day here and there, but it’s important to not forget about eating well. A healthy diet is key to feeling healthy. Feeling healthy can be especially effective in winter when you’re not naturally getting as much exercise as you do during the summer. So, help winter anxiety with a healthy diet.

Sugary foods are not essential to a diet, so try to cut back as much as possible. Here are some tips for cutting down on sugar:

  • Low-sugar cereal. Enjoying your first meal of the day with low sugar cereal each morning can cut out up to 70g of sugar from your diet in a week. If possible, opt for sugar-free options. If that’s not something you think you can do, try a gradual shift to less sugar.
  • Keep an eye on sauces and pre-made foods. Sugar has many guises in an ingredient list, such as sucrose, glucose, fructose, and corn syrup. Watch the nutrition labels on things you buy from the store, especially the amount of sugar. Condiments can have up to 23g of sugar in a ½ teaspoon serving. Since we eat with condiments frequently, the sugar content really adds up.
  • Sugary drinks. Try to minimize the amount of sugar you put in your coffee or tea. Similar to the sugar-free cereals, try putting less sugar in your morning pick-me-up a little bit at a time. But don’t forget about soda! Easily cut out sugar by drinking less and opting for sugar-free varieties or fruity soda water.

In addition to less sugar, opt for healthier choices to make yourself feel better during the winter (even if your fruit doesn’t taste as good as it does in the summer). Some other ways to choose healthy include:

  • Limit fats and choose unsaturated fats when possible
  • Consume five portions of fruit and vegetables each day
  • Go for wholegrain and high fiber starches

There’s no harm in treating yourself, but remember the philosophy of everything in moderation. Often times, when you start eating healthier, your body craves those healthy options more and sugary, high-carb foods less. Use a healthy diet to keep you energized during the winter, as much as you want to hibernate.

Frequent Exercise

Going to the gym may seem impossible during the winter, but it’s a great way to feel better. Physical activity is believed to help with serotonin levels in your brain, which is largely responsible for controlling your mood. And we can’t forget about those endorphins. Exercise is also a great way to get your mind off of something, because all you can think about is the stress your body is under.

According to Dr. Andrew McChulloch of the Mental Health Foundation, exercising for 30 minutes three times a week has shows to help with depression symptoms (looking at you, anxiety!). And get ready to bundle up, because exercising outside is a two-for-one, giving you some daylight for an additional bonus. So go for a trail run to get that serotonin going and blood pumping, with the added benefit of a change of scene.

Keep Busy

A great way to distract yourself from winter anxiety is putting your energy into something other than thinking negative or burdensome thoughts. Try picking up a new hobby that can be done indoors, such as art or cooking. Exercise is another great way to keep busy, which we already know has additional benefits in fighting seasonal anxiety.

Talk about it

Talk about what you’re going through with trusted friends and family to help you through the anxiety. Try not to let yourself withdraw—keep making plans with people and try your best to do the things you want to do, not letting winter anxiety be the thing keeping you home. You could also try speaking with a therapist about SAD and the anxiety it causes. He or she could also offer advice on what’s best for you and how to further help your symptoms.

Know physical coping mechanisms

It’s almost cliche at this point to take a deep breath when you’re feeling stressed out, but don’t let the tedium of this trick keep you from trying it. A deep breath sends signals to your brain to calm down, and then the brain sends this message to the body. Breathing exercises can be done anywhere and are easy to learn, as well as a great way to reduce tension you might be holding in the rest of your body. Pair breathing exercises with counting to 10 to help relieve anxiety.

Tuning into your body’s needs is a great way to cope with anxiety and feel better during the winter months. Try yoga or meditation to take a break from anxious thoughts. Use mindfulness strategies to think happy to feel happy.

hands holding snow in shape of a heart
You certainly are not alone if your distaste for winter comes from SAD and anxiety. Try to be kind to your body and mind during the winter months, it may be a time you need it most.

Seasonal Affective Disorder can include winter anxiety, so don’t immediately convince yourself that what you’re thinking and feeling are normal consequences of the cold weather. If you are someone you know is suffering from anxiety related to SAD, speak to a mental healthcare provider as soon as possible. If it is a mental health emergency, call 911.

While winter weather is a big bummer for many reasons, do the best you can to not let SAD and anxiety to be one of them.

How do you cope with SAD and winter anxiety? Let us know in the comments!

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