With Edmonton breaking a historic cold stretch and Ontario seeing more and more rainy and snowy days, this year’s wonky weather has many Canadians wondering when spring will make its much anticipated debut.
The desperate need for sunnier and warmer weather is evident on social media, and it’s obvious the prolonged winter weather is taking a toll on many.
When winter has worn out its welcome and spring seems so far out of reach, that transitional weather period can actually have an impact on people’s mental well-being and mental health, says Dr. Robert Levitan, professor of psychiatry and physiology at the University of Toronto.
While some people are more sensitive to the transition than others, Levitan says it does have the capability of inducing brief depressive moods or exacerbating certain mental and even physical ailments and disorders, like migraines.
There are a few reasons why that may be.
The first is light availability. We might technically have longer days now that we’ve switched to Daylight Saving Time, but all those overcast days are still blocking out the much-needed sunlight.
“There is some evidence that even on a day-to-day basis our serotonin levels in the brain are greatly affected by light availability,” Levitan explains. “Serotonin is the chemical in the brain that’s probably the most important for short-term mood. So as a species we are more sensitive to daily light situations than we perhaps realize.”
The lack of light also has the capability of having cognitive effects on people, which may further contribute to the altering of moods, Levitan says.
“The sun, for a lot of people, is a trigger that intrinsically makes you feel cognitively more optimistic, whereas darkness makes you cognitively more anxious,” he says.
Barometric pressure may also have something to do with it, Levitan speculates.
“It’s harder to study and it hasn’t been documented as clearly as the light-based effect, but clinically I certainly see that in patients,” he says. “When there’s a rapid change in barometric pressure, I see a lot of people have difficulty with that.”
Some people — two to three per cent of Canadians, in fact — can also experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) during these times, while 15 per cent will experience a milder form of SAD, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). Levitan says that while this may be a reason, SAD tends to happen during the dead of winter months.
In extreme cases, however — like in those who suffer from clinical depression and other mental health disorders — spring can be the toughest time of year. According to Levitan, April is a month that sees a big uptick in suicides and suicide attempts. May, though, experiences the peak.
In the end, though, Levitan says there could be an argument that these mood changes are happening at both biological and psychological levels, and that there are multiple factors in any one individual that can be contributing.
To fight those feelings, there are things that people can do, Levitan says.
First, it’s important to remind yourself that this transitional period in our weather is just temporary. We are, as he says, closer to the end than the beginning and by remembering that, you’ll help fight off those blues.
And second, don’t let the cold deter you from getting exercise — because getting exercise is important at this time. Go outside and go for a walk, he says. By getting out of the house and getting that fresh air, your mood will improve.