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The psychological toll of a Chicago winter

What effect can the Windy City’s biggest flaw have on your mental health, and what can be done to mitigate any potential negative impact?

There are many great things to love about Chicago, though winter probably won’t crack the top-ten list anytime soon.

“When the dust settles and the holiday season comes to a close in early January, the Chicago winter weather starts to take a toll on everyone,” says Maureen Keeshin, Psy.D., department chair of counseling psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Chicago Campus. “The fact that the winter weather in Chicago seems to be extending into the spring months can be particularly discouraging, especially for those already struggling with depression. “

Ice storms, heavy snowfall, whirling winds, and frigid air disrupt work commutes, childcare services, and many routines of daily life. But what effect can the Windy City’s biggest flaw have on your mental health? And what can be done to mitigate any potential negative impact?

Let’s explore.  

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Seasonal Affective Disorder

That’s right, the cold may have you feeling a bit sad—but that is just one symptom of this specific type of depression. In order to be diagnosed with SAD, a patient must meet specific criteria and exhibit the symptoms that correspond with seasonal changes for at least two consecutive years. 

“Research shows that cold and unpredictable climates can have both biological and psychological effects,” says Dr. Keeshin.  

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “Symptoms of SAD are the same as those of depression. They can vary in severity and often interfere with personal relationships.”

These symptoms can include symptoms such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Pervasively sad mood
  • Loss of interest
  • Sleep difficulty or excessive sleeping
  • Craving and eating more starches and sweets
  • Feelings of hopelessness or despair
  • Thoughts of suicide

If it seems like you are not feeling like your normal self once winter rolls around then you may possibly be one of the millions of people affected by this condition. An estimated 4 to 6 percent of adults in the U.S. are affected and an additional 10 to 20 percent may experience a more mild form of the condition.

Tips to consider

The most common treatment recommended for people experiencing more severe forms of SAD is light therapy. Additionally, some of the APA recommendations include:

  • Socializing (game nights with friends are always great!)
  • Attempting to remain active
  • Proper sleep (7 to 9 hours is the recommended amount for adults)
  • Eating healthy foods
  • Gaining as much sun exposure as possible (more below)

You should consult with your doctor before taking any next steps if you believe you may fall into this category.

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Lack of sunlight can dampen your mood

Our bodies need sunlight to make vitamin D, and a healthy level of vitamin D can promote a happier mood. But in Chicago, it can become particularly difficult during the winter months to meet the recommended exposure of 20 to 30 minutes per day—too many layers, not enough time!

However, it’s not just Chicagoans; most individuals in the U.S. have insufficient levels of vitamin D.  It’s just that in Chicago we have a much better excuse (we’re looking at you, California).

Tips to consider

Although sunlight is the most common method for regulating vitamin D levels, other options are available when it’s too cold to catch some rays. And what you eat can make an impact as well.

So, consider these food options if you’re seeking to protect against low levels of vitamin D and enhance your mood.

  • Pork
  • Mushrooms
  • Fatty fish (salmon, herring, sardines, cod, tuna)
  • Whole milk
  • Eggs (specifically the yolk)
  • Cereal and oatmeal

You may also want to consider vitamin D supplements, or other products fortified with vitamin D if none of the above options fit within your diet.

Finally, if you have the money to spare, warmer weather and sunshine is always a flight away.


Winter weight gain

An important disclaimer: not everyone who is overweight is unhappy. However, gaining weight can have a negative effect on mental health, and according to a study from the University of Alberta, winter weight gain is real. The main culprit, according to the study, is “lack of sufficient bodily exposure to sunlight”. Apparently, sunlight is pretty important to us humans.

The study does not focus on vitamin D levels—as discussed above—but rather examines the effect of the sun’s blue light wavelengths on the fat cells beneath the surface of our skin. In short, more sunlight helps to reduce fat storage and can help regulate our metabolism.

But lack of sun exposure isn’t the only reason people tend to gain weight during winter months—holiday feasts and all that Netflix and chillin’ have an effect as well.

“When the weather is frigid or snowy we have a natural tendency to want to settle in and ‘hibernate’ for the winter which can lead to reduced physical activity,” Dr. Keeshin says. “Unfortunately, reduced activity negatively impacts mood.”

Tips to consider

Maintaining a healthy weight during a rough Chicago winter should be no different than the rest of the year, but it may take some extra effort to achieve.

“Being purposeful in our wellness plan for ourselves and our families can help to offset the negative effects we experience,” Dr. Keeshin says. “Continuing to find ways to exercise will help to improve mood and, with this, comes increased energy, motivation, and optimism. Too cold outside to venture to the gym? Try an exercise video or create your own workout that can be done at home!”

You should try to stay active (but warm) by considering a local gym membership for the winter months; purchasing a treadmill, stationary bike, or indoor gym equipment; giving yoga a shot; or, if you’re adamant about going outside, investing in exercise apparel specifically designed for the cold.

Also, do your best to eat healthily. While this can be more difficult when you’re stuck inside all day, one way to combat the urge to munch on junk food is by being proactive. On your few treks to the grocery store, do your best to purchase health alternatives to eat.


Prevention through awareness

Winters in Chicago can be harsh, but they don’t have to be unbearable. By being aware of the potential negative effects that a Chicago winter can have on your mental health, you’re already ahead of the game. So remember, do your best to stay active, eat right, and find a source of vitamin D.

And if you’re feeling overwhelmed or think you may need additional help from a professional, don’t hesitate to reach out—you’re not alone.


Are you interested in learning more about The Chicago School of Professional Psychology? Fill out the form below to request more information, visit our programs page, or you can apply today through our application portal. You can also explore the new B.A. in Psychology program at our Chicago Campus by visiting the program page here.

Blake C. Pinto

Blake C. Pinto, a military veteran, joined TCS Education System’s marketing department as the Advertising Copywriter in July 2017. He has previously worked for HLR Media and LC Digital Marketing in Southern California.


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