Why does my motivation change with the seasons (e.g. less motivation in the winter months)?

Do you ever feel sad? And I don’t mean, “I just watched the latest family dog movie where the dog has cancer for the first half”. I mean, that feeling you get when Winter rolls around of lethargy and lower motivation. So, do you ever get the Winter Blues?

Once we hit the Fall months, the days start getting shorter and as we move into Winter, we have fewer opportunities to actually see the sun! Not only is it fairly normal for your mood to decline during these shorter, usually colder days, it’s become such a commonly studied phenomenon that it was given a name: “Seasonal Affective Disorder”, or “SAD” for short. For a long time the common wisdom was, “people don’t like the cold, it sucks, what’re you gonna do?”

Over the last few decades, though, research has indicated that not only is SAD a real “thing”, but there’s plenty we can do to counteract it! Psychiatrists have been looking into SAD’ness since about 1984, studying the ill effects the winter seems to have on our mood. A smart guy named Dr. Norman Rosenthal theorized that all those negative feelings and emotions should be attributed to a legitimate seasonal disorder. Whether you like the cute colloquial name “The Blues” or the, I would argue, even cuter scientifici name “Season Affective Disorder”, the fact remains that it’s something you should be taking seriously.

What Causes SAD?

Researchers in both psychology and psychiatry have been testing the causes of SAD for a while now.  The Harvard School of Health has found significant evidence that a major factor is lowered levels of Vitamin D in those experiencing the symptoms. Since the majority of our Vitamin D normally comes from exposure to sunlight for a little while each day, the lessened chance of actually being outside during daylight hours in the winter is a significant issue.

In addition to lack of sunlight, other things that can play a role in SAD are genetics, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, and poor air quality. The good news is that the only thing on that list that can’t be modified in a positive way is genetics! For now. I’m looking at you, Human Genome Project!

How do I know if I’m sad or SAD?

One simple way to tell if you might be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder is to consider this: do you ever see marked, obvious decline in your happiness or mood during specific seasons? If so, you’ve probably experience the disorder itself.

The symptoms can vary, but here’s a list of the most commonly reported things people experience:

  • Altered mood or attitude
  • Lack of interest in daily activities
  • Abnormal sleeping habits (sleeping more or insomnia)
  • Altered eating habits (usually in the form of eating more carbs)
  • Reduced motivation

Keep in mind that normally, in order to be considered a disorder, you would be experiencing one or more of these symptoms over a longer period of time. We all have days, regardless of time of year, where we’re just feeling like lazy sacks of potatos. That’s pretty normal; you’re human and sometimes humans just get lazy, don’t sleep well for a night or two, etc. If these symptoms persist, and there are not other obvious causes (like medications, alcohol/caffeine consumption, etc.) then you may be experiencing SAD’ness.

Okay, so how do you treat SAD?

Like we mentioned above, genetics is really the only thing we can’t (yet) do anything about in relation to treatment. You can, however take positive steps to modify the environmental and lifestyle factors.

Use SAD Light therapy

That smart guy Dr. Rosenthal was the first one to use light therapy to help SAD patients (told you he was smart). The goal is to help the body get back to the naturally most healthy levels of Vitamin D that help us regulate mood. There are a lot of options out there for artificial light therapy boxes, but in general you should be looking for ones that:

  • Emit bright, white light (some are blue or red, but research is better on the white ones)
  • Minimize damage to your eyes
  • Can fit in the space you need
  • Emit as little UV light as possible (which can cause skin/eye strain)

Get More Sunlight

Much like artificial light therapy, getting more sunlight helps you balance the levels of Vitamin D in your system. Adding as little as 15 minutes per day outside in natural light can work wonders. You don’t need a really sunny day for this, either, but you may need a little more time if it’s cloudy (30 min or so).

Breathe Healthier Air

More recent research has suggested that the air we breathe may play a major factor in SAD. In winter, you are more likely to be confined to an inside space with poor air flow and quality, usually because you need to share a space with coworkers, family, or friends for more time per day.

A simple fix is to add an air purifier to your home or office (maybe one that isn’t too loud?). This will help reduce the amount of airborne particles that are breathed in, and increase the body’s defenses against physical and mental ailments.

Get Proper Exercise and Nutrition

Like with most things in your life, nutrition and exercise play a huge role in keeping you healthy. The symptoms experienced under SAD are no different, and like other areas making positive changes will help. Make sure that you are planning ahead, swapping outdoor exercise with indoor options (like changing from mountain biking to indoor swimming). When the cold hits, you want as little interruption in your fitness routine as possible. For a boost, try working out in the morning before you start your day; that little energy uptick could keep you in a good mood for a long while!

The biggest thing to look for with your diet is an increased craving for carbohydrates and unhealthy foods. Guard against those the same way you would if you needed to make any diet change: make an eating plan, stick to it, and use positive self talk to encourage yourself to eat right. Above all, don’t let the fact that other people are eating like crap influence you to follow suit. Let them be SAD; you stick with being Awesome.

Limit Caffeine and Alcohol Intake

It may seem counter-intuitive, but taking in lots of caffeine to help deal with the seasonal blues won’t help in the long run. You’ll become more and more dependent on it, and eventually your irritability and negative mood will become worse from the withdrawal symptoms of high caffeine tolerance. Don’t feel like you need to cut your morning coffee or pre-workout energy drink, but avoid adding more than usual. If you see yourself creeping up on intake, intentionally plan to limit yourself appropriately.

The same goes foe alcohol: it makes you feel warm, sure, but it’s also an emotional depressant. The last thing your body and mind need when you’re already less jovial than usual is a substance that depresses your physical and mental stamina even further. It may be best to err on the side of LESS alcohol, rather than even maintaining your normal consumption levels.

When All Else Fails…

See a doctor. Some people get hit harder by Seasonal Affective Disorder than others, and there could be serious things happening in your body and brain that you don’t know about. If you make positive lifestyle changes and see no improvement after a few weeks, go talk to your doctor. It’s always better safe, than sorry.

So that’s it! I hope today’s article on the Winter Blues helps make this cold time of year a little more cheery and tolerable!