OCD and the Seasons - How Seattle’s Dark Winters Could Be Making Your OCD Worse

April 4, 2024   •  Posted in: 

Seattle’s winters are known to be dark and rainy. The days are short and gloomy, and many people find their mood negatively impacted. You could even develop depression symptoms that go away when the sun returns in the summer.

But did you know the darkness of the winter months could also make your OCD worse? Seasonal depression interacts with OCD in complex ways. If you live with both depression and OCD, the Seattle winters could feel like hell to you.

But with the proper treatment, you can get through it. Read on to learn more.

What is seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

The “winter blues” many people feel could be a sign of a more serious underlying mental health condition. Feeling somewhat down during the dark winter months is typical. But suppose these feelings become so severe they affect your day-to-day functioning. In that case, you may be experiencing a mental health condition called seasonal affective disorder.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder causing people to experience symptoms of depression that come with seasonal changes. Most people with SAD get depression during the winter months, but a smaller minority get depressed in the summer.

The symptoms of SAD are identical to the symptoms of major depressive disorder, with the caveat that people with SAD only experience symptoms in certain seasons, while those with major depressive disorder experience them nearly all the time.

These symptoms include:

  • A depressed, sad, or apathetic mood nearly all the time
  • A lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Severe fatigue that medical reasons can’t explain
  • Moving more slowly than usual
  • Changes in appetite that may lead to weight gain or loss
  • Changes in sleeping patterns, including difficulty falling asleep or sleeping too much
  • Thoughts and feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, and hopelessness
  • Recurrent thoughts of death, self-harm, or suicide
Recommended Reading What Is SAD? An In-depth Look

Can you have SAD and OCD?

There are many different links between depressive disorders, including SAD and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

First of all, depression and OCD are very highly comorbid, which is a psychological term to describe when two mental health conditions appear together in the same person. In other words, many people live with both OCD and depression. Studies have found around 40% of people with OCD also live with major depressive disorder.

There isn’t as much research about OCD and SAD specifically. Still, one 2017 study found rates of SAD, especially winter SAD, were higher in people with OCD than those without OCD [1].

Research suggests there might be some neurobiological similarities between OCD and SAD as well. Serotonin deficiency appears to play a role in both OCD and SAD, which is why a type of psychiatric medication called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) is a helpful treatment for both disorders.

The vicious cycle of seasonal depression and OCD

Unfortunately, when you live with both seasonal depression and OCD, these two conditions can become locked in a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle.

When depression sets in, it can lead to a heightened sense of hopelessness and despair, which, in turn, intensifies the symptoms of OCD. The persistent, intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors characteristic of OCD can become even more distressing in the grip of depression.

Depression can undermine one’s motivation and energy, making it harder to engage in the coping strategies necessary to manage OCD effectively. This can lead to an increase in OCD symptoms as rituals and obsessions become more pronounced, often serving as a misguided way to regain a sense of control.

Conversely, the relentless nature of OCD, with its constant obsessions and compulsions, can lead to chronic stress and anxiety, predisposing individuals to depressive episodes. The isolation that can come with the secrecy of OCD symptoms may also contribute to feelings of loneliness, compounding the depressive cycle.

Can the seasons affect OCD?

On top of the link between seasonal depression and OCD, a few studies indicate a lack of sunlight could also make OCD itself worse.

One study found people who lived in higher latitudes – where there’s less sun during the winter months – are more likely to have OCD. On the flip side, people who live in sunnier places are less likely to have OCD [2].

The study also looked at the rates of panic disorder to compare and found there was no difference in rates of panic disorder according to latitude. In other words, the effect, at least in this study, was specific to OCD.

The researchers of this study suggested the sun’s effect on the human body’s circadian rhythm may have something to do with this. Low sunlight levels in the high-latitude winters can make it difficult to fall and stay asleep or wake up in the morning. This causes a disrupted sleep-wake cycle, which may make OCD symptoms worse.

So, if you feel like your OCD symptoms get worse during Seattle’s darker months, know that you’re not imagining it. The lack of sunlight affects your body’s circadian clock and could very well make OCD symptoms worse.

How to cope with the winter if you have OCD

If you live with OCD, then Seattle winters can be rough – especially if you also have seasonal depression. You might find your symptoms get so severe it becomes difficult to function in your day-to-day life. There are ways to successfully manage OCD symptoms and live happily – even during the darkest, gloomiest months of the winter.

Prioritize getting enough restful sleep

One reason researchers think winter is so challenging for people with OCD is that the lack of sunlight disrupts our sleep-wake cycles. To maintain mental well-being, it’s crucial to prioritize getting enough restful sleep each night.

Prioritizing restful sleep is a fundamental part of managing OCD and depression during the winter months. When your mind and body are well-rested, you’re better equipped to cope with this season’s challenges.

Here are some tips to get enough sleep every night:

  • Have a consistent bedtime routine: Establish a calming routine that tells your body it’s time to rest. Your routine can include activities like reading a book, practicing relaxation techniques, or taking a warm bath.
  • Create a sleep sanctuary: Ensure your sleep environment is the most conducive to rest. Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and comfortable.
  • Limit screen time before bed: Stop using screens about an hour before bedtime. The blue light emitted by your devices can further interfere with your circadian rhythms, making it even harder to fall asleep.
  • Talk to a healthcare provider: If you continue to struggle with sleep even after taking these steps, you may benefit from talking with a healthcare provider.

Maintain a consistent routine

Maintaining a consistent daily routine is paramount to reducing winter’s potential adverse mental health effects. Wake up, eat meals, and sleep around the same time daily. Committing to habits can stabilize your circadian rhythm and give you a sense of control over seasonal changes.

Light therapy

Light therapy – an intervention that uses a device that mimics natural sunlight – is known for its effectiveness in treating Seasonal Affective Disorder. Studies suggest light therapy can also offer relief from symptoms if you live with OCD, especially if your OCD symptoms get worse during the winter.

Exposure to “natural” light (using a lightbox) first thing in the morning can positively impact your circadian rhythm and mood. To make the most of light therapy, consult with a healthcare professional for guidance, especially if you’re using it to address co-occurring depression and OCD.

Stay active

It’s hard to have the motivation to exercise when it’s raining every day and it gets dark at 4:30 in the afternoon. But even as winter brings colder and shorter days, it’s important to continue engaging in regular physical activity.

Physical exercise is one of the most potent evidence-based tools for managing the symptoms of OCD and depression. Don’t let the winter weather keep you from your workout. Find opportunities for physical activity, whether it’s through indoor workouts, hot yoga, or throwing on a rain jacket and taking a walk.

Seek social support

Building a robust social support system is one of the most critical factors in learning to manage mental health symptoms. Connect with friends and family over the winter. Share your feelings and experiences with someone you trust – this provides emotional relief and shows you don’t have to carry everything alone.

Take vitamin D supplements

Reduced sunlight exposure during winter can contribute to vitamin D deficiency, especially in dark places like Seattle – which has been associated with mood disorders. Many people in the Pacific Northwest live with a vitamin D deficiency.

We recommend consulting with a healthcare provider about the potential benefits of taking vitamin D supplements for your unique situation. They can assess your vitamin D levels and recommend appropriate supplements to support your mental well-being during the darker months.

Get mental health treatment

If your OCD symptoms get so bad during the winter that they disrupt your daily life, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Mental health providers can offer evidence-based treatments for both OCD and seasonal depression and provide a safe and non-judgmental space for you to heal.

The OCD treatment program at The Center ● A Place of HOPE is located near Seattle in Edmonds, overlooking the Puget Sound. Being local to the Pacific Northwest, we deeply understand how the dark winter months can affect your mental health and lead to worse symptoms, both in terms of OCD and depression.

Our clinical team uses a unique and proven Whole Person Care approach, meaning we understand that you are more than your OCD. It also means that we don’t just focus on your mental health but also on helping you heal your physical, spiritual, social, and intellectual health.

Together, we can beat OCD and survive the PNW winter. Get in touch with us for more information about admissions.

1 – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165178116307296
2 – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2211364917300635

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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