Shorter days, colder weather, and cloudy skies can all lead to a drop in a person’s mood or energy level and for people with OCD, they may also lead to an increase in symptoms. While many people with OCD experience seasonal mood changes, when the onset of the colder months leads to a drop in mood that impacts your daily life, it could also be a sign of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
Both people with and without OCD can struggle with SAD, but when SAD overlaps with OCD, the two can exacerbate each other’s symptoms, making treatment more complex. This is especially the case in the winter months. Thankfully, there are steps you can take to manage SAD that may lift your mood and energy levels in a way that also helps with OCD symptoms.
What is seasonal affective disorder, or SAD?
While OCD and SAD can overlap, it’s important to note that they are separate and distinct mental conditions. SAD is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. Symptoms of SAD can include the following:
- A persistent low mood
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling tired/lacking energy
- Daytime sleepiness
- Feelings of guilt or despair
- Loss of pleasure in activities
- Sleeping more than usual
- Weight gain
For some people, these symptoms can become severe and impair their functioning significantly. According to Web MD, SAD may affect 11 million people in the U.S. each year. SAD generally begins in young adulthood and is more common in women than men. It is also not seen frequently in places where there is sunshine year-round.
What causes SAD?
It is believed that SAD is caused by a lack of sunlight, which impacts serotonin levels, but hormonal changes may also play a role. Some individuals may experience a milder form of SAD, commonly referred to as “the winter blues,” while others can be negatively impacted to the point that intervention is required. Most people with SAD report an onset of symptoms in the fall and an improvement around spring. People suffering from SAD may experience trouble functioning, especially when it comes to their workplace performance and relationships with others.
Can OCD worsen in the winter?
Recently, researchers discovered an interesting link between OCD symptoms and where a person lives. Though more research will be needed, their findings indicated that people who live in places where there tends to be less sunlight may experience more severe OCD symptoms. It is believed that this is because of sunlight’s influence on our sleep cycles. Sleep is an important part of regulating our internal clocks and there can be side effects when this regulation is impacted. Decreased sunlight affects levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that can play a vital role in OCD symptom management.
We also know that OCD is creative and can latch onto anything that a person values. For people with OCD who enjoy spending time outside or in nature, this lack of sunlight may have a serious impact. They may become hyper-aware of weather patterns, compulsively check the weather, or obsessively monitor their mood during certain periods of the year. Anticipatory anxiety may also become a struggle for these individuals as summer draws to an end.
There are many other ways that the long winter months may trigger depression and anxiety for people with OCD. Winter may be a time of decreased social interaction due to the weather, and it may become more difficult to travel or to do activities that one may enjoy at other times of the year. Feelings of loneliness and sadness surrounding the holiday season may also have an impact.
Fears related to the colder weather are another potential struggle for people with OCD during the winter months. For example, people may become more concerned about the flu and sickness spreading. If fears related to contamination or germs have been a struggle before the onset of winter, they may experience a significant spike in these thoughts during this part of the year.
Less time outdoors, less sunlight, increased time alone or indoors, colder weather—all of these things ultimately impact our moods, so it makes sense that they could also impact the severity levels of OCD. These season-related OCD symptoms may become time-consuming and interfere with a person’s ability to live in the here and now. In this way, SAD and OCD can fuel each other, creating a cycle that leads to more distress for the sufferer.
How can I cope with OCD and SAD?
If SAD affects your OCD symptoms during winter, there are several things you can try that might help:
- Look for ways to take in natural light: Taking a walk outside can be a great way to benefit from both exercise and daylight. Another great way to make the most of the limited daylight during this time of year is by sitting near a window when you’re inside.
- Connect with others for support: Social support is important any time of the year. You may find connection and understanding among other people with OCD who also struggle during the colder months by joining a support group.
- Try light therapy: Some people with SAD may find that light therapy helps improve their mood. This typically involves exposure to artificial UV lights that are bright and simulate sunlight. Light therapy can be done at home with the purchase of your own light or in a doctor’s office that specializes in this type of therapy.
- Seek professional help: This is perhaps the most important step of all. A specialized treatment provider can develop an individualized plan to treat both OCD and SAD. This approach may include a combination of light therapy, exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, and medication management.
Effective treatment for OCD and SAD
ERP, when done under the guidance of an OCD specialist, can have lasting benefits. At NOCD, all of our therapists have experience with OCD and specific training in ERP. We not only provide effective, evidence-based treatment OCD, but also for the other disorders that often occur alongside it, such as depression and anxiety. You can book a free, 15-minute call with our team to get matched with a licensed NOCD therapist who is committed to treating what you are experiencing.
It is important to recognize if you are struggling more than usual, as it can be beneficial to reach out for extra support during these times of higher stress. Sometimes, you may just need a brief treatment refresher to help get you through a spike in OCD symptoms during the winter months. One thing I always say and that I have found incredibly hopeful is that seasons always change—they never stay the same. That is the beauty of life.