Winter solstice is a big deal on many levels. It signals the first official day of winter and is also a sign that Christmas is just around the corner.
(Taken locally at Mount Umunhum! Try saying that two times fast)
For those of us in the Northern hemisphere, winter solstice has officially clicked over as of 8:28am PST. This is the exact moment in time when we are angled as far from the sun as is possible at our current latitude. From this point forward, those of us in the Northern hemisphere will gradually experience an increasingly more direct angle from the sun until we reach the summer solstice and it starts to switch back again.
If you’re not familiar with the science behind how the seasons shift, feel free to nerd out a bit: click here to learn about the summer and winter solstices.
As a result of the Earth’s tilt and our current location relative to the sun, December 21st is the shortest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere.
So What Does this Matter to Mental Health?
Many people notice their mood or energy levels change with the shorter days of fall and winter. Some may find that they become irritable around winter time or have more difficulty sticking to their usual disciplines. For those whose symptoms significantly disrupt their daily life activities, they may meet criteria for Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. However, many people who don’t meet criteria for this disorder still experience these shifts.
I spoke about some of these shifts in my post Fall Blues – Is It a Real Thing?
One of the key components influencing seasonal fluctuations in mood is sunlight. Most often we focus on how short the days are during the winter time, but it’s also important to note that the intensity of the sun is drastically different in the winter compared to the summer. In other words, 5-minutes of direct sun at noon during the summer solstice is going to be far more intense than 5-minutes of direct sun at noon during the winter solstice. Therefore, the sunlight we do receive in winter doesn’t go as far as it does in spring and summer. Further, more overcast days in winter can often block even more sun. The cold and inclement weather can also discourage us from going outside to take in the little sun that’s there.
The Good News: It only goes up from here
Even though today marks just the beginning of winter, we will be seeing longer days and greater intensity of sunlight as the earth continues revolving around the sun. This may seem confusing, as longer days and more intense light intuitively should bring warmer weather. This is explained by a phenomenon called seasonal lag. Essentially, the seasons can take some time to “catch up” to the effects of sunlight and there is a lag. Again, I invite you to nerd out if you’d like to learn more: click here to learn about seasonal lag (thanks Wikipedia!).
Though I think it’s likely that this same seasonal lag can affect our mood accordingly, we do have access to more intense sunlight and longer days beginning tomorrow. And what great news! The downside is that it will continue getting colder (and hopefully wetter for us bone-dry Californians) and therefore more tempting to stay inside.
I encourage you to find ways to safely take in the sunlight. Sunlight in the morning helps signal the brain to wake up. Sunlight in the middle of the day is most intense and may be most helpful to boosting mood.
Experiment with different ways of taking in light and see what you find most helpful. Everyone is different and no one recommendation will be the ideal for everyone. You may also find some of the specific recommendations in my post on Fall Blues helpful.
A Note on Sunrise and Sunset
Even though the days will only get longer from here, the change doesn’t evenly distribute between sunrise and sunset. Rather, our sun will continue to rise later and later in the morning into January. In fact, in San Jose we won’t see the sun rise before 7:00am until mid-February! But, the sun will continue setting later and later, and we will see sunset at 5:00pm beginning on December 31st (which we haven’t seen since early November). If you don’t live in San Jose and would like to get to know your sunrise/sunset “forecast,” visit https://www.timeanddate.com/sun/ and type in your city name to learn more.
As a final disclaimer, I’d like to be clear that this blog post isn’t intended as professional counseling or clinical advice. If you’re in need of support, please consider speaking to a professional to be evaluated.
Whatever you may be doing this winter solstice, I hope you enjoy the longer days to come. Merry Christmas!