When the temperatures drop and the days get shorter, about 10% to 20% of Americans feel a decline in their overall mood. But for some people, these seasonal mood changes go beyond a case of the winter blues. About 5% of Americans experience winter depression or seasonal affective disorder. This article explains what seasonal affective disorder is and how cold water immersion can help combat the symptoms.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression. The official name for the condition is Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern, according to the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
In people with this condition, depressive symptoms tend to start in the late fall or early winter, when the days get shorter and the nights get longer. The symptoms tend to clear up on their own in the spring or early summer. Even though it resolves on its own, winter depression can have a major impact on a person’s life—the symptoms generally last for about 40% of the year.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
As a depressive disorder, seasonal affective disorder shares a number of symptoms with major depression. Some of the depressive symptoms that can appear when winter arrives include:
- Persistent feelings of sadness.
- A loss of interest in daily activities.
- Low energy or feeling sluggish.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Weight gain and cravings for carbohydrates.
- Thinking about suicide or death.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
People who experience a low mood each winter may wonder why this happens. Researchers still aren’t sure why some people experience symptoms of seasonal affective disorder and others don’t, but there are some theories.
One theory is that seasonal affective disorder has to do with the lack of sunlight in the winter months. Fewer hours of sunlight may throw off your circadian rhythm, the internal clock that regulates your sleep-wake cycle. This can have an impact on your mood.
Another theory is that the lack of sunlight throws off the balance of certain chemicals in the body. Less sun exposure could reduce levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin. It could also raise the level of melatonin in your body. That’s a hormone that plays a role in sleep.
How Can Cold Water Immersion Help Fight SAD?
When you struggle with a low mood or depressive symptoms in the colder months, the idea of purposely exposing yourself to cold conditions may seem counterintuitive. But there’s actually a lot of science supporting the idea that cold exposure can help fight depression, either on its own or in combination with other treatment options.
Cold Therapy Boosts Mood
Immersion in cold water has powerful mood-boosting benefits, and one study even found that a single cold plunge could have a significant impact on mood. After a one-time soak in cold seawater, participants reported significant reductions in negative feelings like tension, anger, and depression. They also reported increased vigor.
Cold Therapy Reduces Depression
Some studies have found that cold exposure can be a helpful treatment for depression. One study reported that just three weeks of cold therapy led to at least a 50% reduction in the severity of depressive symptoms, as measured by the Hamilton’s depression rating scale. A recent case report detailed a young woman whose depression was successfully managed with cold water swimming.
Cold Therapy Builds Resilience
It takes courage to push your limits by submerging yourself in cold water. By challenging your mind and body with cold water immersion, you can build resilience and mental strength. This can help you better manage times of stress and power through the dark days of winter—or any other challenges that come your way.
Cold Therapy Trains Your Cold Tolerance
A frequently recommended treatment for the seasonal affective disorder is spending more time outdoors, but if you live in a cold part of North America, the idea of going outside may not be very appealing. Studies show that people who practice cold water immersion rapidly become habituated to cold. Getting cold acclimated could help you feel more comfortable heading outside for a workout in winter weather.
How to Get Started With Cold Water Immersion
If you’ve never tried cold water immersion before, getting started can feel daunting. A simple way to ease yourself into cold water immersion is a cold shower. Try taking a cold shower 2 or 3 times a week. You can switch the water from cold to hot as needed to adjust to the shock (this is called contrast therapy).
When you’re ready, try submerging your body up to your shoulders in cold water for a few minutes. A bathtub can work if you have one in your home, but the Ice Barrel is better. Unlike a tub, it lets you sit in a comfortable, upright position and doesn’t need to be drained after each use.
Fight the Winter Blues With a Cold Plunge
The winter blues and seasonal affective disorder can drag you down throughout the colder months, but when you’re looking for a non-pharmaceutical way to boost your mood, it’s hard to top cold therapy. Learn more about how Ice Barrel works and enjoy cold plunges throughout the winter months.
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