Why Do I Feel So Down This Time of Year?

Mental Health

“Mama, did the power go out? It’s so dark.” – 5 year old
“No, it’s just morning and it’s cloudy.” – mom
“BUT IT’S BEEN CLOUDY FOR DAYS!!!” – 5 year old
“It’s called February.” – mom

Sometimes kids just tell it exactly like it is, don’t they? This is an accurate recount of the weather in Philadelphia, PA.

Dr. Megan, Family Physician, here to answer this one! Dear readers, if you live somewhere where you experience four seasons, maybe this feels familiar? We get through the excitement of the winter holidays, then we jump into the fresh, promising start of the new year. But by the time February rolls in and Groundhog Day reminds us just how much longer the winter will stretch, many of us feel tired, slow, or downright depressed. In addition to feeling bad, our behavior changes too – some people withdraw from others, avoid spending time with friends, reduce exercise, overeat heavier foods that can lead to weight gain, or increase use of substances like alcohol to cope.

You aren’t alone. Some statistics estimate up to 20% of the US population experiences these winter blues. Around 5% of the population have a more severe form, called Seasonal Affective Disorder. Those Nerdy Girls have written before about this kind of depression where people experience a change in mood with a change in the seasons, usually in December, January, February and March. Even in Major Depressive Disorder, which is a serious mental health condition that does not come and go with the seasons, many sufferers report worsened sadness during these darker winter months.

Researchers have theories about why people experience this – it’s likely that less sunlight triggers changes in our hormones such as serotonin and melatonin which in turn increase fatigue, reduce energy and make us feel down.

In primary care, we see this change so much in people’s moods that this Nerdy Girl has labeled it “Sad February.” With the change in the calendar comes an increase in the patients who struggle with anxiety and depression, request referrals to therapists, complain of tiredness yet trouble sleeping, and even experience more physical pain. Did you know that you can come to your primary care Clinician for these kinds of concerns? While winter won’t last forever, there are things you can do that have scientific evidence to help you feel better while waiting for spring (we Nerdy Girls LOVE evidence!):

🏃‍♀️ Exercise! Physical activity is well studied and has positive effects on mental health. Specific to the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent systematic literature review suggested more physical activity is linked to well-being and fewer symptoms of depression. In another longitudinal study of 20,000 US adults, people with the lowest level of physical activity scored the worst on scales rating anxiety and depression levels. While there’s no consensus on how much or what exercise is best, a good starting point is 20 minutes 4-5 times per week of anything that helps you move your body and raise your heart rate. Even walking is a good start!

🌳 Get outside! It’s also well studied that being outside in nature for short periods of time improves your sense of wellbeing. One study suggested as little as 30 minutes in a week can reduce depression. If you live in an urban area, finding a green space like a park can boost your mood appreciably, too.

👩‍⚕️ Call your Clinician for help. You are not alone. Primary care providers work as a member of the team that diagnoses and treats mental health conditions disorders. We can further help you connect to a therapist to a psychiatric prescriber if medication changes are needed. We Clinicians try to bring up mental health concerns during your yearly preventive visit, also known as your annual physical. If your Clinician doesn’t bring it up, or you don’t have an annual physical upcoming, this Nerdy Girl encourages you to speak up or schedule a visit. – we are here to help you.

For more information, revisit these Dear Pandemic posts:

Dear Pandemic: Tips to Get Through This Season

Dear Pandemic: How to Find a Therapist

Outside Links:

Suicide Prevention Line: (800)273-8255

Seasonal Affective Disorder

BMC – Physical Activity and Mental Health

Link to Original FB Post