I enjoy receiving psychology/mental health questions on my website and social media. A couple of times a month, I write a post or article to respond to questions I feel are particularly timely and helpful to many people, including me!
ST writes: Do you have any tips for dealing with endless cloudy, cold, and rainy days? I saw the extended forecast, and it’s not letting up anytime soon. I get very down and cranky, and sometimes even anxious when there is no sun for days and days…
What is Winter Fatigue?
The sky is grey, and the chill wind blows outside. Right now, the best thing in the world feels like curling up in a fluffy blanket with a cup of something hot to drink, a bowl of decadent noodles, and a good book, binge-worthy series, or movie. Sure, there is meal prep to do, work deadlines, appointments to keep, and an elliptical machine to hop on, but you just don’t have the motivation.
There are five types of fatigue—medical (such as chronic illness), physical, mental, emotional, and environmental. Welcome to winter fatigue. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, at least 20% of people experience a form of winter fatigue, from mild to significant.
Common symptoms may include:
- Weight gain
- Cravings for carbohydrates (“comfort foods”)
- Irritability/easily frustrated
- Difficulty with concentration
- Avoidance of social situations (hibernating)
- Hunkering down (stock piling snacks, home supplies, and groceries)
- Difficulty getting out of bed
- Increased sensitivity to social rejection (feelings easily hurt; loneliness)
Our nervous systems are designed to handle short-term stress and distress- we get hits of adrenaline and cortisol as part of the body’s fight, flight, or freeze response. When acute stress becomes chronic stress, when we become normalized to being in this state, it takes a huge toll on our bodies.
Recently, people have also been experiencing what I call catch-up fatigue. After 2 1/2 years of having to modify lifestyles and juggle uncertainty, people are attempting to celebrate, meet others, travel, be sociable. It takes a lot out of us. There’s been a recent study in the Washington, DC area that there has been an uptick in rage incidents while driving. Frankly, we’re not used to being around other humans. We are slightly socially stunted.
Circadian rhythms and Cortisol Fluctuations
It would be great if your sleep-wake cycle could align with the season/winter’s light-dark cycle. But I don’t think many of us could sustain families or jobs resting from 5 pm to 8 am each day. Being completely aligned with the season’s natural rhythms is not possible with our multiple responsibilities. However, we can certainly take steps to better align with the winter season. At my company, we come up with an individualized daily schedule, that works with commitments, deadlines, and personal biorhythms as much as possible.
Below are some of the best things you can do to remedy winter fatigue:
- Schedule 8-9 hours of rest/sleep each night.
- Most of us have morning commitments; therefore, waking up later is not an option. Instead, make your bedtime earlier. This means that if you need to get up at 6 am, ensure your lights are out no later than 10 pm.
- Make your bedroom a sanctuary.
- Adjust the temperature of your house: Your body prefers to be slightly cool before bed. Decreasing the temperature of your house a few degrees overnight will likely improve your sleep quality. Do you know how you feel chilly if you’re woken during REM sleep? Our body temperature drops while sleeping. Having cooler air temperature or taking a hot bath and your body cooling after mimics sleep.
- Avoid bright lights in the evening: Try using accent lighting in your home in place of overhead lights, or use dimming switches. If you’re using electronic devices, install apps like f.lux. to block the blue light from being emitted.
- Practice relaxation techniques before bed.
- Reading, audiobooks, podcasts, hot baths, meditation, pranayama, or a cup of tea are a few great ways to unwind in the evening. Turn off screens as much as possible.
- Stress makes you tired.
- Much like melatonin, the cortisol hormone follows what is called a diurnal rhythm. In a perfect scenario, cortisol levels peak optimally after waking. After waking, there is a gradual decline in cortisol levels. Cortisol reaches its lowest point of the day shortly before bed. As you sleep, cortisol levels increase and the cycle starts again. However, excessively high levels of cortisol also cause fatigue. Stress causes a surge of cortisol or adrenalin at different times of the day which can be exhausting to the body. Stress cannot be completely avoided, but learning to recognize the buildup and stave it off is so important.
- Light therapy: During the winter months, exposure to morning sunlight may not be an option. Sometimes it’s dark when leaving the house and it’s dark coming home. Using a light therapy device for 10 minutes immediately after waking can ensure you have the energy needed to get out of bed (a light therapy box mimics outdoor light, which causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood; Amazon offers a wide variety of such products that are well priced). This therapy is an alternative to pushing snooze dozens of times.
- Get outside: Exposure to sunlight keeps melatonin production under control. Even five minutes of outdoor sun exposure can improve your energy levels. Open your curtains and blinds early in the day to let in as much sunlight as possible. This is a mood booster, but we cannot obtain the necessary Vitamin D that we need through windows. Direct exposure to sunlight, even on a cloudy day, helps us get our required
- Vitamin D.
- Mood disturbances and symptoms: Many people struggle with sadness, depression and anxiety during the winter. Add physical distancing, post-holiday blues, and sleep problems to the mix, and it’s no wonder exhaustion sets in. If you have an uptick in symptoms of anxiety or depression, it’s time to talk to your primary care doctor or a mental health specialist.
- Exercise matters (in addition to outdoor time): Try to fit in 30 minutes of exercise four to six times a week. Whether it’s walking on the treadmill, taking a couple of laps around the block, taking the stairs at the mall, or walking around your office building, exercise keeps endorphins pumping in your body, helping keep you energized to combat the winter blahs.
- Balance your food: Comfort foods like mashed potatoes, bowls of rice, macaroni and cheese, etc. sound great when the weather is chilly and the days are short. Our bodies crave more sweets and carbohydrates to help us build that insular layer of fat that kept us alive back in our caveman days. However, balanced eating gives you more energy to fight the cold, and a well-rounded diet keeps the cravings at bay. Find comfort foods that boost energy, such as a delicious lentil curry, a veggie frittata, or homemade soup.
- Relax: Find hobbies and activities that help relieve stress. Meditation can be a great time to let the mind relax and unwind, journaling, crochet/knitting, coloring in an adult coloring book, chatting with a good friend, and yoga can all reduce out of control cortisol levels.
- Massage Therapy: Therapeutic massage can ease body tension and pain, and wakes up your nervous system, turning on your power so you can fight the winter blues. A great massage can also release oxytocin, the hormone of relaxation and contentment.
Timing and Dosage
- Time your exercise: Exercise can help combat winter fatigue, particularly if you take your fitness time into the sunlight. Exercising first thing in the morning can help wake up your body and regulate your circadian rhythm. Exercise in the afternoon can get you through that tired slump. Exercise too close to bedtime, and you may have trouble sleeping.
- Take a power nap: If you can sneak in a 25-30 minute nap between noon and 4 p.m., you’re more likely to power through your day. Snoozing too late in the day could make it more difficult to fall asleep at night.
- Use caffeine. Judiciously: Well-timed caffeine can help you feel more alert, awake and ready to take on the day. Need to perk up before a presentation? Get some caffeine about an hour before it begins. You can also have a cup of coffee before you take a nap. By the time you wake up, the coffee has kicked in.
- Monitor sleep patterns: People demonstrate patterns of sleep that are individual. Biphasic or polyphasic sleep was more common before standard office hours. Sleeping two or even three times a day was not uncommon to combat fatigue and complete life tasks. Learn more: Got Sleep?
- Keep an eye on medical concerns: Are you tired during certain times of the day, all the time, or in specific situations? There can be chronic medical fatigue from a host of significant conditions including sleep apnea, diabetes, fibromyalgia, hypertension, and autoimmune disorders. These conditions and their subsequent fatigue do not necessarily respond to everyday strategies. For example, recently I have started completing evaluations for individuals suffering from Long Covid. The fatigue, cognitive fog, and impaired attention I have assessed has been striking. Getting a medical differential for your fatigue is imperative.
Also see: Pandemic Fatigue.