The weather is getting colder, the sun doesn’t shine as long, and for many of us our moods are following suit
In high school, I didn’t fully understand what Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) was, nor that it affected me and every aspect of my life: mental health, relationships, and academic performance.
When I was in grade nine, around November when it first started snowing, I noticed that I was having symptoms related to depression — oversleeping, having low energy, moodiness, becoming easily irritated, and often feeling exhausted by doing the smallest tasks.
At that time, I was going through a lot of changes in school and in my personal life. It was easy for me to think that I was just going through a funk that I would eventually outgrow. Which I did, but the “funk” came back the following winter.
This “funk” lasted for about five months, roughly the whole duration of the season, but right as spring came by, I would feel like myself again.
Over the years, I noticed that this “funk” was recurring, and always happened around this time of year. Sure, the warmer seasons didn’t erase all my tiredness and sadness, but nothing felt as depressing as during the winter.
Full disclaimer: I have yet to be diagnosed with SAD by a professional. I’ve been gaslighting myself into believing that these depressive episodes are just the usual “winter blues,” and something normal that everyone experiences. Until I see a doctor and take all the tests, I am only self-diagnosed with SAD.
I only recently started researching and learning more about SAD and how to cope with it. So, what is SAD exactly?
The specific cause for this form of depression remains unclear, although the Mayo Clinic suggests that it is directly related to sunlight which affects several essential factors in our bodies.
The first factor is our circadian rhythm (biological clock). The decrease in sunlight during the winter and fall may disrupt the body’s internal rhythm, and can lead to feeling depressed.
Another potential factor is serotonin levels. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, the key hormone that stabilizes our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness, which may trigger depression.
Finally, the change in season can disrupt the body’s melatonin balance, which affects sleep patterns and mood.
A misconception about SAD is that it only happens in the winter, hence the “winter blues.” However, it doesn’t only occur in the colder months. This form of depression is a lot more complex. The symptoms can be distressing and overwhelming, and can interfere with daily functions.
SAD usually begins in the fall when the days get shorter, and lasts through the winter. Weather affects people’s moods. A sunny day can make us happier and energized, while a rainy day can make us feel gloomy and down. Though these minor mood shifts don’t usually affect people’s ability to cope with daily functions, some may be vulnerable to depression that follows a seasonal pattern.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, about two to three per cent of Canadians will experience SAD in their lifetime. In comparison, 15 per cent will experience a milder form that will leave them slightly depressed, but able to function without any significant symptoms.
Personally, every winter, I experience the same symptoms, but they have worsened over time, which makes me wonder if I have SAD.
SAD symptoms are similar to those of chronic depression. Common symptoms include fatigue, even after having enough sleep, and weight gain associated with overeating and carbohydrate cravings.
As previously mentioned, SAD affects not only my mental health but also my relationships. In previous winters, I would hibernate at home and avoid all sorts of socialization and activities. Any kind of non-essential task became too exhausting. Even doing basic daily tasks like checking up on friends required extra effort. This affected my relationships with those around me, and made me more distant and very lonely.
I’ve also seen it affect my academic performance. I usually perform very well in the fall semester, but I’ve noticed a drastic change in my grades and a lack of motivation during winter semesters.
My SAD has made it hard for me to even get up in the morning without crying. No joke. Only a few days ago, I woke up at 5 a.m., got dressed, sat on my couch and cried about how stressed I was. Then, I left the house to catch the bus, and missed it. Cried even more.
By waking up every morning and seeing how dark it is outside, I instantly feel depressed. The cherry on top: when I take the train going back home at 6 p.m., it’s already pitch-dark, which is very discouraging, and makes me extremely tired.
The transition between the summer and fall seasons has been excruciating. How will I cope with my undiagnosed SAD, and prepare myself for the brutal winter, you may ask?
I will try to be active and spend time outdoors during the day, but most importantly, I’m finally going to see a doctor for a diagnosis, and finally start therapy.
SAD is a form of depression that needs to be treated just like any other mental illness.
SAD is still a stigma around many people, especially students. If you’ve had similar experiences, I encourage you to reach out to a mental health specialist and get the help needed.
Feature graphic by James Fay