Last week we asked you via a Facebook survey if the weather affected how you feel – Yes or No. It was a clear YES. With 89%Â saying YES and 11% No. So what is all that about? Well in his latest blog Xin sheds some light on the issue…
I donât 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 thereâs 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. Iâll 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, donât they get it? Itâs a crappy day and Iâm feeling crappy and if they donât leave me alone Iâm 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 donât do this as much, some people find they start to overeat, especially their comfort foods. And since itâs harder to go out and exercise while itâs 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).
Itâs somewhat comforting for me to know that SAD is a real thing, and Iâm not just being a 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. Thereâs no real way of replicating âdaylight on a cloudy dayâ, but trust me when I say thereâs a difference between âdimly litâ and âcloudy weatherâ. Somehow, this change in light triggers a complex set of hormones in the body to basically say âOh no, itâs 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. Itâs time to engage hibernation mode.â
My theory is that in the millions of years that human beings (and our pre-evolved predecessors) have been on the planet, itâs 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 canât shake our instinct that when the light dims, itâs going to be âone of those daysâ.
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 itâs a sunny day, cutting off the âhibernating hormonesâ. 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 itâs 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.
Iâve 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 itâs 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 and be miserable and gain weight. As with all things, exercise is better with good company, so if youâre 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 youâre going to put in the effort.
Forecast and Plan
Something I like to do when I see clouds on the horizon is to check the forecast. If I see that itâs 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 thereâs 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 âbad daysâ. 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 focusing 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. âOh I feel terrible today. Look, I barely have the energy to make toast for lunch. Itâs cold, and I donât want to [study/work/anything]… God, I feel even worse than I did this morning. Maybe Iâll just stay home todayâ).
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. Finding the positive light in everything (âOkay, so itâs raining today, and I feel tired and crummy. Thatâs okay- in fact, itâs great! Itâs the perfect excuse to make a hot chocolate, get into my snuggie and play video games until dinner.â), practicing mindfulness (âRight 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.â) or cognitive behavioural therapy (âEvery time I think the thought âToday is a terrible dayâ, Iâm going to catch myself and say instead âItâs raining today, but Iâm not going to let that ruin my mood.ââ).
In cases that are truly severe, where nothing you do changes your mood and youâre stuck in a cycle of despair and grief, it may be worthwhile to get additional help. Although itâs 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 youâre 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. Check out the finding help section here on TINO
Above all, remind yourself that how youâre 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, itâs 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 youâll excuse me, Iâm 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.
How about you – share your experiences of coping on those SAD days? Leave us a comment below.