This Is How Cold Weather Affects Anxiety & Other Mental Health Issues
by Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro
Beautiful young woman reading a book. She  sitting on the sofa in the living room.
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When the days become shorter and the weather becomes chillier, many people can find themselves with a slight case of the winter blues, as the change in seasons can indeed affect mental health. However, if you notice this depression is recurring every year, you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder (aka, SAD). According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Seasonal Affective Disorder is “a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer.” Basically, people with SAD experience depression, but it ebbs and flows along with seasons.

SAD is an extremely important mental health issue, but many people don’t realize the folks with other mental illnesses can also experience an influx of symptoms with the change of seasons. A 2013 study that examined Google searches on mental health suggests all (yes, all) mental illnesses tend to get worse during the colder months — likely because people are feeling the effects much more. While mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, or Bipolar disorder are a year-round challenge, winter weather can make coping with mental illness with more difficult. Colder weather can affect all kinds of mental illness in these scary ways below.

Cold weather can limit access to coping skills

While some may enjoy snowy weather, it can inhibit mentally ill people from seeking out or accessing their most helpful coping skills. “In the colder seasons, the things that function as my self care — being in the sunshine, being able to exercise freely, and being able to see my friends — are restrained by the weather here in Illinois,” Talia, an 18-year-old artist and activist tells Bustle. “While I think some solitude is very healthy to thrive, [winter] often leads to more time spent confined to my room.” Investing in a light therapy box, or simply stocking up on small, in-home comforts could ease the transition of coping during the winter. Also, though the role of Vitamin D deficiencies and how they affect mental health is still a contentious topic, studies suggest taking Vitamin D during darker months could help lift your mood.

Winter weather can influence manic and depressive episodes in people with Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar Disorder (both Type I and II) are characterized by two major, alternating mood patterns: manic episodes occur when a person diagnosed with Bipolar disorder has an elevated mood, insomnia, impulsivity, and other high-energy symptoms according to the DSM-5. Depressive episodes mimic the symptoms commonly found with clinical depression, but Bipolar depression can be more volatile. The change of seasons can impact people with Bipolar in multiple ways, and influence the occurrence of an episode. "The biological effects of a lack of sunlight can produce disruption in sleep cycles, decreased and depressed mood [...] the changes in the season and temperature are mirroring the changes in their bodies that help adapt to the climate change which can exacerbate and manifest as manic and depressive symptoms," Clarissa Silva, a Behavior Scientist and author of relationship blog You're Just A Dumbass, explains to Bustle via email. While symptoms can vary in degree and significance depending on the individual, there's little doubt that seasons affect how their illnesses present.

Anxiety, like Bipolar Disorder, can also fluctuate with the weather.

Similarly to Bipolar Disorder, people who live with anxiety disorders can experience a volatile influx or range of symptoms with the oncoming winter months. "For those diagnosed with bipolar disorder or anxiety, the winter can be especially challenging. Research has shown seasonal patterns in increased hospital admission rates, mood relapses and symptom fluctuations during the winter months," says Silva. People diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder or anxiety "will experience more irritability, changes in sleep cycles, changes in mood that are drastic, and/or feelings of not wanting to do similar activities done in the previous months." Easing the transition from summer to cold weather and dark days can be difficult, but by utilizing small coping skills, you could possibly deter some anxiety, or stop a panic attack in its tracks.

People with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be put under duress when there's big changes, like seasons

Like all mental health issues, seasonal changes — not just cold weather — can have a dreary affect on PTSD symptoms and those who live with this mental health issue. Though there isn't much research on how PTSD is affected by seasonal change, co-morbid symptoms like depression or anxiety can absolutely worsen because of the incoming cold.

Additionally, Dr. Lata K. McGinn, a psychologist and co-founder of Cognitive & Behavioral Consultants (CBC), says that you could have an "anniversary reaction" if your trauma occurred during the winter season. "People report an increase in PTSD symptoms during the anniversary of their traumatic events," Dr. McGinn says, "This could be mild and transient or sustained and severe. If the traumatic event occurred in a particular season, then symptoms could flare up when that particular season begins." Annually, 116,000 Americans are injured in car accidents that were caused by snow or slush, and PTSD among car accident victims is extremely common. Luckily, violent crime actually decreases during winter months, but it does no harm to be mindful if you, your friend, or family member experienced a trauma during the winter.

The holiday season can affect mental health issues

64 percent of people diagnosed with a mental illness feel their symptoms become worse and more difficult to manage during the holiday season. “I have Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” Ashley, an office administrator, tells Bustle. “Big stressors like holidays, school and other big changes all occur within a few months of each other during the winter." Kelsey, a community organizer, also says, "There's all this pressure to be fun and festive [during the holidays], but it just makes it even harder for me to get out of bed." So, if you have a family member or friend that is mentally ill, be mindful that the holiday season can be particularly stressful, and exacerbate mental health issues.

Elevating your awareness around your mental health, and learning how the seasons can personally affect you could make or break your winter months. Even if you love the snowy months and winter activities, keep in mind that less sun and limited time outside can impact your mental health — whether or not you live with a mental illness. For folks who do have mental health issues, taking any possible, proactive steps to alleviate your winter-borne symptoms before they become unmanageable can help keep you healthy.