The latest of my blog posts for TINO.
I don’t know about you guys, but Perth has had (and is having) a pretty long string of stormy days and cloudy weather. I find that during times like these, where the languished light of the sun barely penetrates the veil of clouds, my mood is very often much lower than on bright, sunny days. I thought I was the only one who experienced it, who seriously felt the difference when the weather took a turn for the worse, but it turns out there’s a diagnostic subset of depression associated with the winter blues.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (a.k.a. SAD) can be thought of a very specific form of depression. Commonly associated with the season of winter, there are some days when I wake up exhausted after ten hours sleep. I’ll spend hours dragging myself around lethargically, apathetically going through the movements of my life. Accompanying my low energy will be my equally low mood, filling me with a sense of exhausted despair, irritability with people (God, don’t they get it? It’s a crappy day and I’m feeling crappy and if they don’t leave me alone I’m going to de-friend them on facebook.) and loss of pleasure at things that normally cheer me up. The bleak weather mirrors my bleak mental state, and I find everyday tasks magnitudes harder than they normally are. Although I don’t do this as much, some people find they start to overeat, especially their comfort foods. And since it’s harder to go out and exercise while it’s raining, this typically leads to weight gain (more on this in a moment). And of course, my poor physical, emotional and mental health all feed into each other making me feel worse and worse until I want nothing more than to crawl back into bed and sleep until the sun comes out (however many hours or days that might take).
It’s somewhat comforting for me to know that SAD is a real thing, and I’m not just being grumpy, lazy and hopeless just because I feel like it. Studies have shown that the actual cause of SAD is not due to the wet weather, but to the quality of light. When the clouds cover the sun, it gets darker in a very specific way. There’s no real way of replicating “daylight on a cloudy day”, but trust me when I say there’s a difference between “dimly lit” and “cloudy weather”. Somehow, this change in light triggers a complex set of hormones in the body to basically say “Oh no, it’s going to rain today, shut everything down. Yes, everything. Better hoard some nutrients, so start craving fatty foods rich in carbohydrates and then conserve energy; waste no effort on extraneous movement, high emotions or social pleasantries. It’s time to engage hibernation mode.” My theory is that in the millions of years that human beings (and our pre-evolved predecessors) have been on the planet, it’s been drilled into us that cloudy days mean bad days for hunting, gathering, building, travelling or any outdoor activity. Rainy days meant sitting in the cave, staring outside, waiting for the freezing water to stop falling so that life could carry on. And despite all our technological advances, we still can’t shake our instinct that when the light dims, it’s going to be “one of those days”.
However, those labcoat-wearing scientists up in their bigwig laboratories have developed a number of ways of diminishing the effects of SAD, and there are plenty of things that we can do to help or conquer seasonal depression.
- The most common treatment is light exposure therapy, where people who experience SAD are exposed to bright light, usually in the morning, for between thirty and ninety minutes at a time. This essentially tricks the brain into thinking it’s a sunny day, cutting off the “hibernating hormones”. Fear not- this technology is not sequestered away in government labs, but can easily be replicated at home with a bright lamp. I recommend getting white (instead of yellow) globes, at 60 watts or higher. I find that yellow bulbs, particularly the 40W variants, make me feel lethargic and insipid (even if it’s a bright day outside). If SAD is something that affects you commonly, it may be worth replacing all the bulbs in your house with brighter, whiter ones. Experiment and see what works best for you.
- I’ve found that being in locations where there is no natural light can help immensely. On rainy days, I used to love going to work because the lighting never changed- I had no idea what the weather was like unless I walked up to a window and looked out of it. This, combined with simple tasks that occupied my hands and my mind, inevitably made me feel better.
- Exercise can be an amazing pick-me-up. I know I just said it’s fighting against the natural biology of the body, but most of the time it really is worth the effort. The sheer endorphins released from doing physical exertion makes it an instant feel-good activity, and it comes with the important role of keeping you mentally and physically healthy where you might otherwise be tempted to sit at home, be miserable and gain weight. As with most things, exercise is better with good company, so if you’re not already part of such a group, try a team sport or join a local fitness club with a friend. Whatever it is, make it something fun– you may as well enjoy yourself if you’re going to put in the effort.
- Something I like to do when I see clouds on the horizon is to check the forecast. If I see that it’s only expected to be a single day of partially cloudy weather, I do my best to not let it inconvenience me. If I discover that there’s a week of storms ahead, at least I can brace myself for the daily challenges SAD brings, and start planning ways in which I can make it easier for me.
- Speaking of which, one should always be prepared for potential “bad days”. Having a well-equipped Mental Health First Aid Kit is something everyone should invest in. After all, Seasonal Affective Disorder is just a form of depression, so the rules for taking care of yourself on your SAD days are the same as any other poor mental health day.
- Get absorbed into a totally different world. On days where I feel truly terrible, watching a good movie or reading an intensely engaging book can somehow change everything. By focussing my attention on something else for a few hours, I no longer have the ability to focus on my own problems. And when I stop focussing on my problems, I stop feeding into the negative cycles (e.g. “Oh I feel terrible today. Look, I barely have the energy to make toast for lunch. It’s cold, and I don’t want to [study/work/anything]… God, I feel even worse than I did this morning. Maybe I’ll just stay home today”).
- Sheer willpower. There are plenty of studies into the power of the mind changing the emotions and physical responses of the body, so if you feel up for it, feel free to change your thoughts. there are many ways you could go about doing this, but here are three simple ways. You could try finding the positive light in everything (“Okay, so it’s raining today, and I feel tired and crummy. That’s okay- in fact, it’s great! It’s the perfect excuse to make a hot chocolate, get into my snuggie and play video games until dinner.”), practicing mindfulness (“Right here, right now, I am not suffering. I am not in danger. There is nothing in the past or future more important than this present moment, and in this moment, I am quite able to be at peace.”) or exercising cognitive behavioural therapy (“Every time I think the thought ‘Today is a terrible day’, I’m going to catch myself and say instead ‘It’s raining today, but I’m not going to let that ruin my mood.’”).
- In cases that are truly severe, where nothing you do changes your mood and you’re stuck in a cycle of despair and grief, it may be worthwhile to get additional help. Although it’s temporary, the experience of SAD can be quite profound, and if you need to talk to someone urgently you can call a crisis line and speak to a counsellor about how you’re feeling. Alternatively, you can look for counsellors (many education systems provide a free counselling service) for slightly longer-term treatment, or join a group of people who experience similar symptoms.
Above all, remind yourself that how you’re feeling (emotionally, physically and mentally) is due to the condensation of water molecules in the sky, and nothing more. Try and avoid making major life decisions just because the very temporary weather is getting you down. I know that on my SAD days, when I feel like dropping out of uni, quitting work and just staying home for the rest of my life, it’s better to wait a few days before actually handing in that resignation/withdrawal form. The Chinese have a saying: a storm cannot last all day. No matter how sad you get, the natural cycle of things is such that the clouds will eventually pass in their own time, and that the sun is always shining (whether you can see it or not).
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go re-read my favourite book by a bright lamp, robed in my dressing gown and with a hot drink. Keep warm and bright everyone.