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The Psychological Impact of Seasons

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Why is mid January the gloomiest time of year for so many people? What effects do the seasons have on us? What health conditions are linked to weather and time of year?  Why is Blue Monday so blue?

In most parts of the world, where they are celebrated, Christmas and New Year are now in the past. All the excitement and anticipation has gone. Perhaps the bills have yet to be paid. There is the prospect of many long, dark nights; and at least three months of cold weather until some spring-like days arrive. 

Perhaps too much has been eaten and the waistline is reminding many of the weeks of diet ahead. The next holiday is months away. All the family tensions and resentments are still fresh in the mind, and the prospect of divorce proceedings starting is at its highest in January. When all of those factors are present on a Monday morning, they seem amplified. Under such circumstances it is little wonder that mid January is the gloomiest time of the year; that Blue Monday is so blue for so many.

For some people, around 5% of the population, the above gloom tune, is worsened by SAD, seasonal affective disorder. SAD is the deflated or even depressed mood related to lack of natural sunlight. Once diagnosed with SAD, many people quickly receive effective relief from using light boxes. 

Less well known is summer seasonal affective disorder, SSAD, with similar symptoms. It is seems related to a host of intertwined factors such as increased light, with higher temperature and humidity, all disrupting sleep. Sleep deprivation is strongly connected to adverse affective states. SSAD may also be connected to the societal expectation that one should be happier in the summer months. The increased activity in summer evenings could be related to not getting enough relaxation time. Long-term fatigue is also associated with deflated and depressed states. Summer activity may simple wear out some people.

It may surprise many people to know that depression is the leading cause of disability across the globe. The WHO estimates that over 120m people are disabled by depression. Much depression is related to the seasons and time of year.

Vitamin D is known to play a part in affective disorders, such as depression. One of the many sources of vitamin D is sunlight (others include fatty fish, seafood, mushrooms, and eggs). 

Could mid January in the northern hemisphere be the gloomiest time of the year, at least partly because we have had so many months in a low light environment, and spent much time indoors over the festive period, thus causing vitamin D deficiency? 

Low sun light, as a cause of vitamin D deficiency, appears to have a lower incidence in locations closer to the equator, and in dry areas with less cloud cover, such as the middle east. In such places, another problem occurs: ultra-violet light penetrates the skill and impairs the immune system. 

People whose ancestors lived in high light environments had a greater chance of survival if they had darker skin – their immune systems were not as damaged by ultraviolet light. 

Having darker skin necessary for a stronger immune system in high light environments, has a negative effect in low light environments: less Vitamin D is created. In lower light environments, such as North America, and most of Europe, The rate of vitamin D deficiency among people who have skin suitable for survival in high light locations, is around 70%. 

Positive and negative ions in the air have an impact on our mood. What is a positive or negative ion? Both nitrogen and oxygen can take on a negative or positive charge, when thus charged the atoms are referred to as ions. There is some mild evidence that positive and negative ions can have an effect on mood. Positive ions seem to deplete mood, while negative ions seem to have an elevating effect. 

Positive ions are created in many ways: by central heating, by fluorescent lights, and rooms where air does not freely circulate. Most of those causes are more present in the dark, cold winter months, and seem to have a mood depressing effect. It has long been thought that the large number of positive ions, in some work places is a key factor in ‘sick building syndrome’.

By contrast, negative ions are present in fresh air, produced by running water, and by many forms of plant life. It seems that may be at least one reason we are uplifted by a walk in ‘green spaces’ or the countryside.

With Blue Monday arriving every January here is a list of ideas to boost your mood beyond that one day and during all the dark, cold, winter months, (if you live in a location where that applies).

  • Regular movement. Movement boosts mood. Regular exercise is great for the mind and body. And that doesn’t mean ‘join a gym’. You can exercise anywhere, any time. Walking up and down stairs.  Press-ups, sit-ups, lunges, and hundreds of other exercises require no equipment or special location.
  • Regular social contact. Spend more time with friends. Being with people we love, who are mutually nurturing boosts our mood, and has a positive effect on health.
  • Mould removal. In winter, mould is more likely to grow inside buildings, and the toxins in mould are known to be linked to mood suppressant effects. Keep your house mould free.
  • Going for a walk in nature, with friends, brings a quadruple benefit: you get exercise, socialising, natural sunlight, and the negative ions from fresh air and plants. Even on a cloudy day, outdoors, there is much natural ambient light.

When it comes to managing the psychological impact of the seasons, most of the factors listed above are within our control. If we take appropriate levels of self-responsibility for our mood, we stand more chance of maintaining a cheerful outlook, in even the darkest and coldest days of winter. In fact, we can go further: we can learn to love winter and decide that it can be one of our happiest times of the year. 

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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