I’m freezing. It’s wet. I feel trapped here, in this place where I am planted to grow. I don’t feel like I belong and it is lonely for me here. I suppose everyone experiences this in the winter.
Much like daisies, daffodils, and all the wonderfully colorful spring blooms, people need sunlight and a change of seasons to keep themselves going. We decided to look into this phenomenon and how it relates to Hendrick’ County with the help of Dr. April Johnson from Hendricks Regional Health.
Come spring, I will stretch out and soak in the much-needed sunlight. By the early summer, I’ll be in full bloom with all my friends and family. My stem will stand tall and my petals will stretch out wide, like arms ready to embrace the new season’s sun.
Most of us can agree that spring and summer bring in some much-needed sunlight, color, and warmth as a break from the chilly winter months. For some of us, this changing of the seasons can be refreshing, for others it feels like being tossed into the deep end of the pool. But, why?
Weathering the Weather
Many people have heard that weather impacts moods, and while the scientific community is still on the fence, most can agree that sometimes we all feel a bit like we are simply trying to “weather the weather”. Looking a bit closer at the research, we find tons of studies dedicated to finding out how and why changing weather and seasons can make us feel better or worse.
In 2004, a study found most people appear a bit more “blue” during the winter months. More interestingly, it found that those outside for long periods during the cooler, “unpleasant weather” had a more unpleasant mood than those who were outside for longer periods during warm and sunny weather.
The study also noted this sort of data was hard to find on a large scale. In part, this is because we usually spend almost 93% of our time indoors. That statistic becomes less surprising when we look at the types of jobs those of us in Hendricks County have.
Over 13% of the county is administrative or office positions, 11% of the county works in management positions and another 11% works in retail, another 5% works in food services and 7% work in warehousing. This can make us feel more disconnected from the weather. The researchers suggest that to get the benefits of the seasonal change, we need to spend 30+ minutes outside in warm and sunny weather. Hendricks County has a huge variety of options for getting outside and in the sun this spring and summer, like parks, trails and more. Some of our options include using Washington Township Parks, the Hendricks County Parks Foundation parks, and the Brownsburg B&O Bike Trail.
The University of Michigan was not the only research team to find a link between brain function, mood and the weather, and they certainly weren’t the last.
You’re Hot and You’re Cold
A more recent study took online browsing and social media data to check out if weather impacts our daily lives. They did this through patterns of browsing history, language usage on social media, and other digital data.
They found, during a 4-year span, that negative effects on mood follow a cycle that repeats itself each year. This cycle peaks during the winter months. At peak times, in November and December, sadness is over-expressed on Twitter, while Seasonal Affective Disorder (more on this later) is most searched during this time as well. It was also found that during late winter into early spring that more people are looking up stress and panic.
That’s not all this study found. They also found some other interesting trends from Twitter. One trend is sadness that can be explained by what is known as a photoperiod. A photoperiod is a day length or how long of a period we receive the sun. Anxiety is explained by the level of rain rather than day length.
Another trend from the study is that anger can be, in part, influenced by temperature.
What’s Heat Got to Do With It?
If you’ve followed the news during heat waves, or if you lived in Hendricks County during our historically high temperatures reaching upwards of 106 degrees during 2012, you’ve probably noticed an increase in stories about violent crimes during these times.
When the temperature rises, tempers can flare too. This is especially true during times of little rainfall. In general, the relationship between heat and violent conflict is not only clear, it is consistent across over 60 different studies.
The increase in violent conflict was most obvious between groups. When looking at conflicts in history along the lines of heat and temperature, we can see a pattern emerge. Psychologist Glen Geher suggests this could be related to the increase in crankiness that we all experience during a heat wave, but that it is more likely far more complicated.
It seems like being “hot-headed” is a phrase for good reason. Geher attests that brain temperature can also impact mood and our behavior. For example, higher than normal brain temperatures relate to more aggressive moods and behaviors.
Keeping in mind that when it gets too hot, we can get a bit grumpy. Add that to low rainfall and economic or societal conflict, then you end up with a powerful mixture. That being said, some of us are impacted differently when it comes to changing weather and temperatures.
Seasonal What Now?
Earlier, we introduced Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. This is a special type of depression related to the changing of the seasons. In general, people with SAD start to feel its effects early in the fall and during the winter.
Not everyone with SAD experiences the same symptoms or at the same time of year. It is most common in the winter, but some people actually find themselves struggling with the changing of the seasons from winter to spring. One study found amounts of major depressive episodes occurring in January were 70% higher than in August. They also saw an increase during December, January and February versus June, July and August.
Dr. April Johnson, Medical Director of Wellness & Population Health at Hendricks Regional Health Wellness, says “It’s important to make the distinction between “winter blues” and true Seasonal Affective Disorder. People with Seasonal Affective disorder meet criteria for major depression or bipolar disorder, but tend to see changes in their symptoms with the seasons. This occurs in about 15% of patients with depression. It’s more common for people to feel sad, or sluggish in the late fall and winter, but not have symptoms severe enough to meet the criteria for depression. This is called “Subsyndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder.” But “Winter blues” works too.
Diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder or subsyndromal SAD should be made by a healthcare professional or mental health professional. This is not a diagnosis you should give to yourself. Many people feel more tired and sad during winter months, but professionals can determine which people would benefit from what types of treatments.”
The tricky thing about Seasonal Affect Disorder is that even non-depressed people still tend to have some changes in their brain chemistry during the changing of the seasons. Those with SAD have more dramatic changes to their ability to take up serotonin, a chemical in your brain responsible for the feeling or well-being and happiness.
Luckily, there are some ways that we can deal with our emotions in healthy and productive ways whether we have SAD, or we are simply still working on weathering the changing of seasons. According to Dr. Johnson, some options are:
- “Antidepressants – These medications work by increasing serotonin levels. They are very effective, and some people only need to take them during the winter months of the year. Like all medications, they can have side effects and need to be prescribed by a healthcare professional.
- Counseling by a mental health professional – Counseling is typically done by a mental health professional. Many counselors are offering services by phone or with virtual visits options during the COVID-19 pandemic. For a direct link to Mental Health providers, please visit http://www.hendrickshealthpartnership.org/mental-health-and-counseling.html. And https://www.myhopehealth.org/tele-psych-program-helps-remove-mental-health-stigmas/
For mild ‘winter blues’ there are therapies that don’t require a prescription. The best way to support your mental health, is also the best way to support your physical health: eating a healthy diet, keeping a healthy sleep schedule, staying physically active, connecting with others.”
The Great Outdoors
If we want to cash in on the positive effects of the spring, then our best bet is to get up and head outside. In today’s social climate, that can be a daunting task.
Dr. Johnson says, “Getting exposure to sunlight will also help boost your vitamin D level. There is some research to suggest that individuals with SAD have low vitamin D levels. Your best source of vitamin D is sunlight…. While you are getting some sunlight – get moving! Regular exercise protects you from SAD. Even now, while we are sheltering in place, getting out for a walk can boost your mood.”
The good news is, within Hendrick’s County alone, there are tons of places that we can take advantage of. It was found in a research project done by the Hendricks County Health Department that we have better access to parks than the rest of Indiana, on average! In 2016, over 70% of Hendrick’s county residents preferred to get their exercise by taking advantage of parks, rivers, and lakes in the Hendricks county area.
One of these parks to take advantage of to boost your mood this spring is McCloud Nature Park in North Salem, Indiana. McCloud boasts over 6 miles of nature trails that can have the whole family soaking in the enjoyable weather while keeping at least 6 ft away from others.
Other parks that can be found in Hendricks County that don’t require jungle gyms or play areas to be fun are places like Pecar Park in Avon. Pecar is a newer park, and unique in handling this time by hosting virtual park events like egg hunts and fort building contests that people can take part in from their local trails or in their own backyard.
Another popular park within Hendrick’s is Sodalis Nature Park in Plainfield. This park features 3.5 miles of trails and over 5 acres of pond space. This park is also special because it is striving to work alongside park and animal professionals to make important changes in preservation of both land and wildlife in the area.
If parks and nature trails aren’t your favorite, that is okay because the idea is to simply get out and get at least 30 minutes of sun per day. Take some of this time to catch up on those at home projects we’ve all been putting off. Like some DIY projects. From building benches or lawn seating, planting a garden, or painting a fence, there are plenty of projects that we can do.
Also, don’t forget that at Hope Healthcare, we are offering various services via telehealth options that keep you safe and provide you with the care you need. If you’re bearing the stress from Seasonal Affective Disorder, the change in weather, or anything else, we’re here to help. Take advantage of our tele-psych program today to start feeling better about your stressors. Give Hope Healthcare a call at: 317-272-0708 to book an appointment to our Tele-Psych program.