Winter Mental Health
By Dara Poizner
Posted on January 13, 2021
Will Winter really affect my mood?
Some people who come to Canada from countries with warmer, sunnier climates may notice that the general mood gets worse when the weather gets colder. It is important to prepare for the weather in Canada and how it might affect your feelings, and to learn about the methods of managing those feelings. In this article, you will learn a bit about the weather, how it can change your mood, and tips for dealing with that change.
The weather in Canada
The Canadian climate is different across the country—most parts of Canada have four seasons, each with different weather. Spring and fall usually have milder temperatures, ranging from about 5 to 15 degrees Celsius: the weather warms during spring before summer and gets colder during fall before winter. Summers are hot in central Canada and warm on the west and east coasts. Canada is known around the world for having very cold winters. Winter weather in Canada includes snow, ice, and cold winds. On the west coast, winter is usually rainy and not as cold.
Winter in Canada is beautiful, and we can enjoy fun activities in the cold, snowy weather. Lots of people love spending time outdoors playing winter sports like hockey, or going ice skating, skiing, and snowshoeing. There are also winter celebration festivals in many Canadian cities, including Winterlude (Ottawa), Carnaval de Quebec (Quebec City, Que.), and Jasper in January (Jasper, Alta.). Winter can also be a great time of year to enjoy cozy indoor activities like cooking and baking, reading, watching movies, and playing board games. Even though there are great things about the Canadian winter, it is still a hard time of year for many people.
How can the cold change your mood?
As the days get shorter and the weather gets colder, many people notice changes in their mood. According to the American medical centre Mayo Clinic:
- Without enough sun, the brain might make less serotonin, a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that improves mood.
- When it is dark out, the brain might make more of the hormone melatonin, which makes you feel more tired.
This means that our brains may be unable to maintain the mood and level of energy we had in the spring and summer.
There are other reasons people might also feel sadder or have less energy in the winter:
- Very cold temperatures, short and dark days, or lots of rain can be unpleasant, which can lead to negative emotions.
- People feel lonelier in the winter because colder weather often means spending more time at home.
Canadian winters can be long, lasting about five months (usually November to March), and lots of people feel more depressed, tired, or irritable during this time. For many of us, it is normal to have a worse mood in the winter—but there are things we can do to improve it.
Ways to improve your mood in the winter
For people whose mental wellness is affected by the winter weather, small changes can make a positive difference. These techniques may not get rid of feelings of sadness or tiredness, but they often help us improve our mood and handle our stress. Always talk to a doctor if you are concerned with how winter affects you.
For people looking for overall mental health support and resources, Wellness Together Canada is a free online service from the Government of Canada.
The cause for mood changes in the winter is still unknown, but researchers think it is due to lack of sunlight. People spend less time outside in the winter, and there is less daylight overall. Mayo Clinic suggests making your indoor space brighter by opening the blinds, sitting near a bright window, and removing objects that block sunlight. If you don’t have a bright area in your home or office, you can try light therapy: use a light box, an extremely bright indoor light, instead of natural sunlight. There is not a lot of research on light therapy yet, but current research suggests that it is effective at reducing symptoms of depression in the winter. There are a few possible side effects of light therapy, such as nausea and headaches. Be sure to choose a safe product and follow all directions. Talk to a doctor before you try light therapy.
Even when it’s cold and cloudy, it is good to spend some time outside. Getting sunlight and fresh air is helpful for improving mood, especially if you go out early in the day. One easy way to achieve this is by walking regularly.
There are also lots of winter sports and snow activities that can help Canadians enjoy the winter season outdoors. Speaking to Canadian Immigrant, Carlos Castano (originally from Colombia) said that skating and tobogganing improved his mood in the winter. Many cities and towns have outdoor skating rinks, and parks where people can toboggan or play in the snow. There may even be a trail nearby for winter hikes.
When going outdoors in the winter, it is important to dress warmly. Temperatures are often very cold, and the wind makes it feel colder. This article from Arrive has detailed advice for planning winter clothing, including these tips:
- Choose a heavy winter coat that fits well and has a hood.
- Choose winter boots that are warm, waterproof, and have a good grip on the bottom so you don’t slip when the ground is icy.
- Wearing two or three layers of clothing under your winter coat will keep the heat close to your body.
- Wear warm gloves, socks, a hat, and a scarf.
Taking care of your body
Being physically active helps people lower stress and boost their mood, so try to find a way to exercise regularly in the winter. Local gyms or recreation centres are good places to exercise and play indoor sports (note: during COVID-19 when this was written, it is not possible to go to gyms in many areas). Lots of people exercise at home too—many free workouts of all kinds are available online.
Eating a balanced, healthy diet also affects our mood in the winter (and all year!). According to the American medical centre Cleveland Clinic, research shows that certain foods can have an impact on neurotransmitters, the brain chemicals that affect your mood. Taking care of your immune system, stomach, and heart health by eating well will help you feel better overall. Cleveland Clinic suggests foods such as:
- Fruits and vegetables that are high in vitamins and minerals (e.g. oranges, broccoli, peppers) and especially dark leafy green vegetables (e.g. spinach)
- Carbohydrates that are high in fibre (e.g. whole grain bread, brown rice, oats)
- Proteins that are low in fat (e.g. lean beef, fish, beans, eggs)
In this Time magazine article, doctors Kelly Rohan and Norman Rosenthal said that sleeping well is also very important for our mood in the winter. It is helpful to keep a regular sleep schedule during winter, so talk to a doctor if you are having trouble sleeping.
There are other simple things we can do to help lower stress, which is an important part of improving our mood and overall health. Some people use mind-body techniques to relax, like mindfulness, a type of meditation which KidsHealth.org describes as “paying full attention to something,” “taking your time,” and “focusing in a relaxed, easy way.” According to Mayo Clinic, most research on meditation suggests that it is effective in helping people who are struggling with stress, anxiety, and depression, and that it can improve sleep and focus.
Practicing mindfulness and meditation regularly can help us feel calmer. These simple exercises and resources are a good place to start:
- Mindful.org, How to Meditate
- KidsHealth.org, Mindfulness Exercises (for Kids) – Nemours KidsHealth
- Mindful.org, Five Free Mindfulness Apps Worthy of Your Attention
If we spend more time at home when the weather is cold, we may feel lonely, which can cause stress and sadness. Connecting with people who can support us in hard times or just make us feel happier is helpful for lowering stress and improving mood. Get together to do an activity with people you like being around (note: during COVID-19 when this was written, gathering with people outside of your household may not be an option). You can also stay connected with loved ones online or over the phone, and watch movies, play games, or enjoy a hot drink together digitally.
Getting professional help
Some people experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that is caused by weather changes. It is not unusual for our mood to change in the winter, but depression can make it much harder to do everyday things. HealthLink BC says that signs of winter depression can include feeling sad or anxious, having very low energy and a higher appetite (especially for carbohydrates), and losing interest in activities you usually enjoy. SAD usually occurs where there is less sunlight, but it doesn’t only affect people in Canada. It is more common than we might expect.
Mental health is an important part of our overall wellness. Many people take care of their mental health with the help of a doctor or therapist. If you are struggling, talk to your doctor, or go to a walk-in clinic. A healthcare professional can help create a treatment plan.
If you are dealing with a low mood or even seasonal depression, it is important to know that you are not alone. With small changes and the right support, it can get easier.
Read about seasonal affective disorder