Let me tell you the story of this year’s summer solstice.
I went with my best friend Sophie for a long weekend up at her family’s cottage. Just the two of us, surrounded by trees and wild berry bushes and summer flash-storms and the lake. We read books of short stories and made duck confit and lamb and feta salad and blackberry violet shortcakes; we did yoga and canoed on the lake and I finished writing Part III of my novel. It was, simply put, a dream getaway.
It’s maybe eight PM and we’ve decided to go hang out on the floating dock in a couple of deck chairs and watch the sun set over the lake. It’s the summer solstice–why not go pay some respect to the sun on the longest day of the year? So we’re sitting there, my best and oldest friend and I, with the placid serenity of nature all around us, with the brilliant sun sinking beneath the trees and turning the clouds peach and plum and rose-gold. We’re holding hands. She’s staring into the distance, thinking whatever esoteric, philosophical thoughts she’s probably thinking. It’s all very magical.
And I’m squinting at that gargantuan gasbag in the sky thinking–
“Welp, it’s all downhill from here.”
I interrupt Sophie’s musings with my resigned, sardonic proclamation and she bursts out laughing and gives my hand a sympathetic pat. I proceed to serenade her with the most jokingly-choked-up version of the first verse of this song that I can muster–because it’s exactly how I’m feeling.
I have since regaled her with renditions of other songs while pretending to sob into my hands, like this one:
(The fanatic happiness of this link only serves to underscore my decidedly dark (haaah) humour about all this.)
Now, we’re old enough friends that we’re able to joke about our misery to each other and still know it’s not entirely a joke. And it’s not. Because while I can find many humorous ways to express my dismay about the changing of seasons, in the end it’s a very serious and life-affecting matter to me. You might have caught on to what’s going on by now. If not, you might be asking: Why, Sienna, why the deep-rooted existential dread about wintertime, why the aversion to shorter days and longer nights and colder weather overall? You’re a Canadian, for goodness’ sakes, why all the fuss?
Because of a nefariously punctual mood disorder called Seasonal Affective Disorder, that’s why.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or the aptly-acronymed SAD, is a mood disorder experienced by a fair percentage of Canadians and other humans living in higher-latitude climates, where there is a significant change in daylight hours as the seasons change. It is also referred to as ‘seasonal depression’. Essentially, people with SAD experience a form of depression that comes and goes at the same time every year–namely, once Daylight Savings sets the clock back and our days suddenly become pitifully short. Symptoms fade and disappear in conjunction with the lengthening of the days in springtime.
Why does this happen? According to Mayo Clinic:
Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
The long and short of it is that the lack of natural light causes an imbalance in the hormones that are required to a) regulate sleep patterns and b) produce a sense of general well-being. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2-5% of Canadians experience severe/clinical SAD, another 10-15% experience a slightly milder seasonal depression, and ~25-35% Canadians feel a still-milder form, which we typically call the ‘winter blues’. 80% of the people who experience SAD are female-bodied.
The symptoms usually begin as a general feeling of tiredness and fatigue, and quickly evolve into a host of other symptoms which mimic other forms of depression. To be considered seasonal depression, the symptoms have to have recurred at roughly the same time over a period of at least two years. Here’s one list from a UK website on SAD (people in the UK and Ireland also have to cope with the disorder quite a bit):
- Lethargy, lacking in energy, unable to carry out a normal routine
- Sleep problems, finding it hard to stay awake during the day, but having disturbed nights
- Loss of libido, not interested in physical contact
- Anxiety, inability to cope
- Social problems, irritability, not wanting to see people
- Depression, feelings of gloom and despondency for no apparent reason
- Craving for carbohydrates and sweet foods, leading to weight gain
Note: I do not have an official diagnosis, but after years of wondering why winter seemed to hit me harder than most folks I know, I did my homework and studied my symptoms and found this to be a perfect match. After some thought, I am comfortable not seeking a professional opinion, as I feel the severity of symptoms places me in the ‘mild seasonal depression’ category, as opposed to the more aggressive clinical variety. But this is my personal choice, and it may change at any time. As always, when it comes to medical questions, it’s really recommended to get it checked out with your doctor and to receive professional advice on how to treat your individual case. Every body is different, and so is every mind!
Winter Blues Bruise: How Seasonal Depression Affects Student Life
So as a self-professed chronic overachiever, you can only imagine how I can loathe this yearly flatline of my ability to focus, motivate myself, and/or care. Here’s how it goes: every September I start school with the supernova of zealous energy that summer gives me, and then somewhere between late October and early November, Daylight Savings kicks in, and my energy level drops like a hundred-pound weight. Doing schoolwork becomes twice as challenging, requires an extra-hard push to begin and an extra-extra-hard push to finish, and I’ve needed to ask for extensions more than once.
Me, the compulsively-exemplary student, handing things in late and feeling like all my work is unimportant anyway? That’s difficult enough as is.
But it becomes equally difficult to do the things I do to relax and unwind, like reading, drawing, creative writing, talking to friends, yoga, and so on. About the only thing that seems appealing is sleeping, and occasionally eating something warm and dense and sweet because my stomach feels like a cavernous ice kingdom and I need something to thaw it out. My emotional state is even more attached-at-the-hip to the sun than usual: if there’s a bright blue sky outside, then I can usually muster up enough positivity to carry me through the day, but if the sun is smothered behind clouds for longer than two or three days I become a lethargic, apathetic, easily-irritated, existentially-fraught trainwreck of a girl.
I’ve been asking students around campus whether they’ve been feeling the season change the way I have, with varying answers. Some are in the same boat as I am; some don’t even have the boat and are floundering alongside it, so severe is their seasonal depression. And some people are standing happily on shore and staring at us all in confusion like “yo it’s not even that cold/dark, why are you getting worked up?”
To explain succinctly how it feels, I give you a bilingual pun of sorts.
So we call it the Winter Blues when it’s mild enough to go largely unnoticed, right? Well, a fun fact for my anglophone readers (or my francophile readers who weren’t taught this particular vocab in French class): the French word ‘bleu’ can mean the colour blue, or, used nominally, as in ‘un bleu,’ it can mean a bruise.
Winter blues. Winter bruises.
That’s how it feels. Winter bruises us–bruises our motivation, our inspiration, our ability to get things done and to feel good about the few things we do accomplish. It batters our energy levels and our social lives and our sense of happiness. It leaves marks–marks that always fade come springtime, but marks all the same.
What To Do If You’re SAD (or Know Someone Who Is)
There are a number of tips and treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder, covering everything from cognitive behavioural therapy and antidepressants, to light therapy with special ‘sun lamps’, to changing your diet to include more tryptophan-rich foods (an amino acid which facilitates the production of serotonin; foods include turkey, milk, and egg whites), and more. Here are several links with various methods of treating SAD, including alternative medicine options.
A lot of the methods we use to relieve other forms of depression and anxiety also help, as they act on the same sort of symptoms.
I’m letting the experts illuminate (haaah) treatment options, partially because I’m not an expert, but more because I feel I have something a little more important to say.
Hey, you. Fellow SAD people.
There is nothing wrong with you.
More than giving you a bunch of ways to “fix” yourself so you can get back to “normal”, I want to provide you with a little insight on how to view this aspect of yourself. A shift in mindset is sometimes the best healer of them all. Every year, when my own symptoms start up, I’m initially really frustrated at myself, angry at the fact that I’ve become “unproductive” or “lazy”, afraid of the fact that I’ve stopped being able to care about the things I normally care so deeply about. I fight it tooth and nail and try to force my way through it and “stay on schedule”, behaving as I would in summer months. It’s because I’ve almost forgotten I cope with seasonal depression, you see–because it’s been sort of a while since I was reminded. But once I remember, then I also remember to be gentle with myself.
SAD is as valid a form of depression as any other, and as with all depression, it ought to be treated with gentleness and self-acceptance. To my fellow afflicted, please remember: be kind to yourself. Permit yourself to change with the seasons. Humans like to think we’re not nearly as tied to nature as we really are–this is just one of her harsher reminders.
Allow yourself to lighten your workload for the winter months; if you’re a student and you’ve been diagnosed, you can seek academic accommodations such as deadline extensions. Find low-impact ways to socialize with loved ones (Netflix really comes in handy here!), because being around people you care about is good for all forms of depression. Let yourself have those hour-long mid-afternoon naps you are craving so hard (trust me–I went this past week trying to force myself not to have them, and when I finally caved and crawled into bed, I woke up feeling a LOT better). Commiserate with people who are going through the same thing–it can be a huge relief only to be reminded that you aren’t the only one who is experiencing this shift.
And if you don’t experience seasonal depression but you know someone who does? Please, remind us of these facts. It can be hard to be kind to ourselves without some validation from people whose opinions we trust and value. If it’s sunny out, invite us to come outside and have some tea/hot chocolate; if we’re lamenting our lack of productivity, show us what he have accomplished that day, and let us know that it’s enough. Above all, remind us that…
The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow
In the end, I think Seasonal Affecive Disorder is one of the least troublesome forms of depression to have–because no matter what, it has a predetermined end date. Yes, it’ll show up every winter. But it will also disappear every spring, without fail. When you have eaten twelve eggs and sat in front of a sun lamp for an hour and had an afternoon nap and your friend has told you that you did plenty today and it’s still just not working for you, remember that this is only for now. While seasonal depression is challenging and can even be debilitating, it’s also temporary–it will not last forever.
There has never been a year where spring has not come. Let me serenade you with songs while we wait for it. Let me hold your hand. Wait for the sun and the warmth and the smell of new things growing; wait for the world to wake up and we’ll wake up with it, I promise.