Mental Health And The Changing Seasons

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated April 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The mind and body respond to light, temperature, and the rhythms of the natural world and the changing seasons. As the world around you changes with each passing season, mental health can also change throughout the year.  Understanding these changes may equip you to navigate transitionary periods healthily and maintain mental health throughout the year. To understand this phenomenon more profoundly, looking at the way nature can affect people, how to cope with changes, and how to find support if you struggle with seasonal challenges may be helpful. 

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Navigate change with the guidance of a professional

The impact of seasonal transitions on mental health

Changing seasons affect people in various ways, with each season bringing unique influences on life and mental health. Below are a few changes that may occur in each of the four seasons. 

Spring 

Spring is often associated with rejuvenation and a sense of hope, brought about by themes of blooming flowers and baby animals as days become longer and warmer and nature comes back to life. However, some people may experience heightened anxiety or stress due to the pressure of “spring cleaning” our homes or the flurry of social activities that often accompany warmer weather.

Summer 

Summer, while mostly related to relaxation and enjoyment, can paradoxically cause anxiety and depression for some. The pressure to “have fun” or ensure you have a “beach-ready body” can be overwhelming. For some, excess heat from the sun and humidity can exacerbate physical discomfort, which might indirectly affect mental health.

Autumn 

Autumn generally connotes returning to routine as summer vacations end and school or work responsibilities resume. The reduced sunlight and cooler weather can also impact mood, energy, and motivation. This season is also associated with a significant transition period, which can evoke stress and anxiety.

Winter 

Winter brings shorter days and longer nights, which can lead to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression linked to changes in seasons. The lack of sunlight can disrupt one’s internal biological clock, reduce serotonin levels (a neurotransmitter that affects mood), and imbalance melatonin levels (which affect sleep and mood). However, some people celebrate holidays and spend time with people they love in the winter, which can have positive or negative connotations.

Transitioning through the year 

Transitions between changing seasons can also pose challenges as one’s body and mind adjust to the difference in routines, activities, and environmental conditions. These changes can cause fluctuations in mental health status, emphasizing the benefit of adaptable coping strategies. Although these changes can be seen in many people, impacts on mental health vary, so seek support if these changes become overwhelming for you. 

How does nature affect humans? 

Nature has significant impacts on mood, affect, and decision-making. Below are some of the most common natural changes that can impact humans. 

Daylight shifts

One of the most apparent shifts people may experience between seasons is the change in daylight hours. Long, sunny summer days can elevate mood, boost energy, and encourage individuals to engage more with the world around them. Contrarily, winter's shorter, darker days can lead to lethargy and sadness for some. Acknowledging these changes, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, or speaking with a mental health professional about the details of your mental state may help you manage these effects.

Temperature fluctuations 

Your body’s reaction to temperature fluctuations can also influence mental health. The warmth of spring and summer can bring relaxation and happiness. Conversely, the cold of fall and winter might cause you to want to retreat indoors, leading to decreased social interaction and increased isolation. Staying physically active, regardless of the season, may combat these feelings. Whether you take a brisk walk in the autumn air or try a cozy yoga session indoors during winter, determine ways you can keep moving– and stick to them. You may even recruit a loved one to send daily check-in texts that hold you accountable. 

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Activity changes

Connection with nature can play a critical role in mental health. Summer invites you to enjoy outdoor activities, enhancing mood and reducing stress. In contrast, winter's quieter, slower rhythm volunteers an opportunity for introspection and renewal. Embrace each season’s unique offerings, whether you choose to enjoy a refreshing summer swim or a content winter evening by the fire.

Research suggests that being involved with nature can have positive mental health effects, including helping individuals be more connected to a larger community. Seasonal changes can offer the opportunity to become involved in the beauty of nature. Consider investing in clothing or gear suited for your area's temperatures so you can get outside year-round.

For those living in cold climates, snowshoeing, sledding, ice skating, watching the snow fall from the sky, and leisurely strolls to admire the winter trees may help you incorporate a connection with nature and Earth into your year-round routine.

Regardless of the season, maintaining social connections can profoundly impact mental health. During the warmer months, this maintenance might look like picnics in the park or beach days with friends. In colder seasons, you might try more indoor-focused activities like movie nights, shared meals, or virtual gatherings with loved ones and their families. Staying in contact and nurturing these connections can provide a buffer against loneliness and isolation.

Key strategies to maintain social connections include regular communication with friends and family, joining interest-based groups or clubs, attending religious services, volunteering, or adopting a pet (with the necessary resources to care for them.) These connections can create a sense of belonging and may help you perceive yourself as understood and appreciated. Social connections can also provide an invaluable support network during difficult times.

Does the influence of nature differ in different hemispheres?

While mental health influence does not change based on the hemisphere you live in, the timing of seasons and their effects are different in different locations. Winter and summer solstices are astronomical events marking the shortest and longest days of the year, respectively. In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs on December 21st, whereas the summer solstice falls on June 21st. The situation is reversed in the southern hemisphere.

During the winter solstice, the North Pole is tilted furthest away from the sun, leading to shorter daylight hours and longer nights in the northern hemisphere. This lack of sunlight can contribute to seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression common in winter months. Meanwhile, the southern hemisphere enjoys its longest day of the year during this time, potentially elevating mood and energy levels due to increased sunlight exposure.

Conversely, during the summer solstice, the North Pole is tilted closest to the sun, resulting in the northern hemisphere's longest day of the year. Extended daylight can positively impact mental health, boosting mood, energy, and activity levels. However, the southern hemisphere experiences its shortest day during this time, which may lead to decreased mood and energy for some individuals.

Mindfulness and self-care

In the journey of navigating changing seasons, self-care and mindfulness can be crucial. Mindfulness and self-care can help you tune in to your emotions and physical feelings, recognizing how the seasonal shift impacts you. This self-awareness may guide you in finding self-care activities, whether you seek more rest, social interaction, or time for relaxation and hobbies. Self-care can take many forms, but the following are some of the most common. 

Meditation and mindfulness

Mindfulness can reduce stress and anxiety, improve focus, and promote general well-being. You can start with a few minutes a day using guided meditation apps or videos. Studies show that just ten minutes of meditation daily can positively impact mental health. 

Journaling

Writing your thoughts and feelings in a journal may help you manage anxiety, reduce stress, and cope with depression. It provides a chance to self-reflect and understand your emotions better, and studies show it is linked to improved mental well-being

Relaxation activities as part of your upcoming events

Activities that relax you and make you happy can be a form of self-care. For example, you could try reading, gardening, painting, or listening to your favorite music. The perfect choice is whatever hobby interests you the most. These activities are not only for filling time and can have significant mental health benefits. Once you’ve completed a relaxation task, such as weeding the garden or finishing a new book, you may also feel a sense of accomplishment. 

Healthy boundaries 

Healthy boundaries are crucial to healthy attachment and relationships. Learn to say no when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Setting boundaries can help manage your energy levels and maintain your mental health. For example, you might limit the number of upcoming events you plan to attend or decrease your time on Facebook when you’re feeling fatigued from the constant information overload. 
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Therapy for the seasonal transitions in life

Changing seasons may cause feelings of sadness, lethargy, or anxiety in some individuals. However, reaching out for help from an in-person therapist can be challenging if you’re struggling to leave home. In these cases, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp can be a convenient and effective resource to navigate these changes and fill the treatment gap. 

In the relaxed environment of your own space, you might find it easier to express yourself freely. In addition, online therapy can fit around your schedule, making it easier to check in with your therapist and maintain consistent sessions throughout the seasons, even amidst changing routines. 

Research supports the effectiveness of online therapy in addressing various mental health challenges, including depression, anxiety, and stress-related disorders that seasonal changes can exacerbate. A study published in The Cureus Journal of Medical Science found online cognitive-behavioral therapy to service mental health struggles as effectively as face-to-face therapy, reducing symptoms of major depression, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. 

Takeaway

Navigating the changing seasons’ effects on mental health can be challenging, but with certain strategies and mental health resources, it may be possible to ride these waves of change with grace. You may cope and live healthily throughout the year by staying active, maintaining a nutritious diet, nurturing social connections, and practicing self-care. Contact a licensed therapist online or in your area today for further compassionate guidance and support.

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