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Why Does Winter Make Us SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is not an official DSM-IV TR diagnosis, even though it has been widely accepted by the general population, practitioners, and researchers. So why is it that so many feel a little "sad", lethargic, and irritable during the colder months?
As the weather turns cold and ice and snow make it difficult to get around, we spend more time indoors and venture out less. This means that we are socializing less often and exposing ourselves to new sensory experiences less often. Without socialization, we begin to feel isolated and lonely. Without variant sensory experiences, our brains are less engaged leading to boredom or lethargic thinking. In addition, the extra layers of clothing and bundling up can contribute to feelings similar to claustrophobia.
When we settle in at home for the winter, we tend to spend more time watching television or surfing the Internet. Often we try to substitute live socialization with social media. While social media makes it easier to reach out to others and share information, the majority of time you are viewing the conversations and activities of others, which again can lead you to feelings of isolation or being left out. In the same way, research suggests that watching television causes mild anxiety and depression.
In addition to the influence of electronic devices, the chill in the air tends to encourage us to huddle under blankets, even though we feel warmer when we are active. Cleaning the house always warms me right up! Lack of exercise actually diminishes our physical energy and slows our bodies. As we are tempted to be sedentary, we are more likely to choose foods that require little preparation, reaching for processed foods rather than fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and organic meats, which are a higher quality of 'fuel' for our bodies. We also want to reach for hot drinks, like coffee, tea, or cocoa. These can be sugary, acidic, and even dietetics. It is easy to forget to drink enough water which will also diminish physical energy.
The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere which means that there are more hours of dark than sunlight throughout this season. Our bodies naturally produce melatonin, which regulates sleep, in response to darkness and serotonin, which contributes to feelings of well-being, in response to light. If you arrive at work in the dark and drive home in the dark, it can be hard to get enough serotonin to feel good. 
We can't forget that the snow, freezing rain, ice, school cancellations, delays, salted roads, and more can become frustrating, adding complication and stressors to daily life, and leading us to feel more irritable. 
Whether the groundhog sees his shadow or not, if you start to feel "sad" this winter, go somewhere new, spend time with friends, turn off the computer and television, open the blinds, get active, eat quality foods, drink enough water, and try to find the beauty in the season. By rejecting the inclinations of the season, you can keep your mental health in check.
photography by Danese Kenon

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