16 December 2022

Cold snaps can pose a range of challenges in terms of our mental health

Estimated reading time: 2 Minutes

Dr Laurence Wainwright 

In recent years a sizable body of data has emerged indicating that cold snaps can pose a range of challenges in terms of our mental health – especially for those with an underlying psychiatric disorder.  

For those with an illness such as Major Depressive Disorder or Bipolar Disorder, periods of unusually cold weather can exacerbate and worsen symptoms. There are complex interactions at play here between socio-economic factors (e.g. does a house have proper heating), the type of medication being taken, support systems and care in place, and the severity of the illness and current phase (mood disorders are cyclical in nature). 

Another group of people – most of whom are otherwise healthy – can get a form of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder which comes only during the darker, cold months and then vanishes again when it gets warmer and brighter. 

For the general population, cold weather can have a minor to moderate impact on mental health. It seems there are three key factors at play here, with feedback loops exacerbating the impact of each. 

First, withdrawing from some of the regular activities that give our life structure and keep us healthy. When it is very cold outside (and also inside for many of us struggling with energy bills), we are more likely to rug up indoors and batten down the hatches. While we don’t hibernate like many other mammals do, humans tend to take things slower and withdraw somewhat when it is colder. For instance, when the alarm goes off for our usual morning jog, the temptation to stay snuggled up under warm blankets rather than face the freezing cold and pitch black can be irresistible.  Or we may ignore that text message from a friend asking to meet up at the pub and instead stay curled up on the couch. Lessening both exercise and social interaction have a tangible impact on our mental health.  

Second is shorter days and a lack of bright light. Cold weather, limited sunlight hours and gloomy skies often go hand in hand. There are fascinating interactions here between the circadian rhythm of the body – our internal clock that plays an important role in all body systems – exposure to light, levels of vitamin D, and two chemicals in the body called melatonin, and serotonin. We may find ourselves sleeping longer – but paradoxically feeling more tired than usual – struggling to get out of bed, finding it harder to concentrate, and even having a slightly lower mood than usual. 

Third are the psychological impacts of dealing with what lies ahead. While a lucky few of us can fly off somewhere warm for the winter, most of us will have to endure many months of chilly weather and short days. The mental fatigue and sense of dread that some people experience in the realisation that winter has only started and it will be over 100 days until the birds sing in the springtime can be challenging.