Seasonal affective disorder or just the fall and winter blues, weather can greatly affect our mood. Finding ways to cope will make the changes more manageable.
As someone who has lived in Minnesota her entire life, I’m no stranger to intense weather changes—hot, humid summers shift to cool falls, which turn into brutal winters, then to muddy springs. The variety is just part of living here. And most of the time, I appreciate the seasonal changes.
But I also can’t ignore the fact that the weather impacts my mood greatly. The dark, gloomy days, especially during the winters, often leave me feeling down and irritated. Spring is often the worst, as we get brief tastes of amazing weather, usually followed by another dumping of snow. The shift of fall into winter is also hard, as the days get shorter and darker.
But over the years I’ve lived here, I’ve learned how to manage my mood and the effect the weather has on it. There are a plethora of coping mechanisms out there. As autumn sets in, I wanted to share a few of the ways weather affects my mood most often, as well as my favorite, most effective ways to deal.
1. Less sunlight leads to a tired body and mind.
As the days get shorter and darker, I often notice my mood following suit. Over time, I’ve learned that there’s a name for this: Seasonal Affective Disorder. And there’s also a likely explanation: As our bodies are exposed to less sunlight, they have a propensity to create more melatonin, a hormone that contributes to feeling tired. It is believed that body simultaneously lessens the production of serotonin, which can help to regulate our mood, sleep, and appetite. So we get more of the natural sleepy chemical and less of a major feel-good one.
The onset of this past winter was particularly tough for me, to the point that I purchased a light therapy box. These boxes are designed to give off exposure to 10,000 lux of light, and I noticed a definite improvement in my mood when I used mine as I worked. I also made sure to continually remind myself that this weather is temporary and that Minnesota summer and falls make up for it and then some. Keeping things in perspective can’t always help me manage my depression (because sometimes I need outside help), but from time to time, I find that it does help.
2. Colder weather can decrease physical motivation.
As someone who works out often and intensely, it’s usually not a battle to get myself to the gym. In fact, I enjoy it. However, the winters are another story. I tend to avoid early morning workouts, as well as late afternoon ones, since I feel unmotivated to exercise when it’s basically completely dark at those times. This leaves only the middle of the day to work out, which luckily works for me. But I still notice a decrease in intensity. My winter workouts also lack their customary enjoyment and intensity, which affects my mental state, as well. This makes sense, as colder weather has been proven to decrease numerous factors having to do with exercise, like muscle strength, blood flow, dexterity, and balance.
So how can you overcome this cold weather-induced lack of motivation? It’s not very complex, but I’ve found the best solution is just to force myself to get to the gym anyway. Once there, I’ve never regretted showing up. If you still struggle with this, go out of your way to schedule workout time into your day and take note of your mood changes after—you’ll likely stay more committed when you notice the clear benefits to your well-being.
3. Gloomy weather can lead to less healthy diet choices (which affects mood).
Think about it. When you’re home or in the office on a gloomy, rainy day, do you often crave a salad or some warm, cozy comfort food? If you’re like most people, including myself, your answer is probably the latter, even if you feel guilty and bloated afterward. But there’s a good reason for this diet desire: Because sunlight affects certain chemicals in your body, including serotonin, it can lead people to crave carbohydrates, which increase serotonin levels. However, it’s important to note that this increase doesn’t last, so people soon find themselves back where they started.
While it may be tough, try to remind yourself that while fleetingly satisfying, eating empty carbs likely won’t make you feel better long-term, especially if the weather remains the same. Instead, work on making healthy, filling diet decisions to leave yourself feeling full both physically and mentally. If you find this especially tough, plan ahead. Take the time to meal prep for the week and have a plan for each meal, each day. Then you have less likelihood of veering off track throughout the week.
Of course, every individual is different. What one person despises may be the environment another person thrives in. What’s important is that you take the time to acknowledge what weather affects you the most and how, then create a plan for managing those mood changes.