Can Cold Weather Affect Your Mental Health?

Northwestern Medicine
Psychiatry and Psychology January 28, 2014
For most Chicagoans, winter isn’t the best time of the year, especially when temperatures plummet and stay below zero for days on end. Avoiding prolonged exposure to the extreme cold by staying indoors as much as possible is the best way to stay safe, but how might all that time stuck inside affect someone's mood or mental health?

“To my knowledge there isn’t any research that supports the idea of ‘cabin fever,’ but for people with seasonal affective disorder, a strong desire for a structured routine, bi-polar disorder or depression, having to stay inside for long periods of time can be problematic,” said Pedro L. Dago, MD, medical director of the psychiatric emergency department at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

According to Dago, there are some simple ways to help cope with being cooped up.

1. Keep your basic routine the same.

“Wake up when you would normally wake up, eat when you would normally eat, your routine should not change even if you don’t have to go into work or school due to the weather. Keeping a stable routine helps keep a person’s mood stable as well.”

2. Stay in touch with the people who are part of your normal routine.

Just as keeping your day-to-day routine basics the same is important for maintaining a positive and proactive state-of-mind, it is just important to stay in touch with the people you would connect with if not for the icy temperatures. “Communicating with the people that are typically part of your daily life, be it by phone or email, is important to maintain and reinforce your psycho-social routine. Doing so can counteract the feeling of isolation that can be caused from having to stay indoors away from friends, co-workers and loved ones.”

3. Let in the sunlight.

It is hard to get enough sunlight in the winter, but it is important to seek it out when you can. “Maximizing the amount of sunlight you get in the winter is important, particularly in the morning, for maintain a healthy sleep cycle and for those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder.” While it may not be possible to go outside, opening the curtains and blinds on windows when it is sunny can be just as effective.

4. Exercise is important.

We all know we should exercise to help stay healthy, but this can become even more important if we can’t get the normal workout of commuting and walking to and from different daily obligations. Studies have shown that exercise improves people’s moods and mindsets. You should try to do some kind of exercise during the day to stay positive, especially if you are used to moving around as part of your normal routine.

5. If someone is depressed or in an emotional state that makes them a danger to themselves or others, seeking help should not be delayed due to the weather.

“There tends to be a decrease in the number of people we see in the emergency department when it gets extremely cold outside, but no one should wait to get the care they need.” If you or someone you care about is in an emotional state that needs immediate attention, a trip to the hospital’s emergency department should not be delayed.

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