It’s the first day of the semester, and any optimistic anticipation I may have possessed quickly disappears when I climb on my bike and am immediately drenched in biting wind and rain. I don my poncho and ride off to a 10.15am tutorial. Cycling through the city, up Lygon street and through the maze of Melbourne University, nothing catches my attention. There are no elderly groups lunching and drinking wine too early on the sidewalks of Carlton. The trees that line the road are bare, skeletal structures that feel devoid of life. The university feels like it’s been struck with COVID again; nobody is out, nobody is about.
In my class I quickly learn most of my cohort have chosen to participate online and, frankly, I don’t blame them. It’s so much easier to attend, feel motivated and engage when the weather is agreeable. When the sky isn’t so consecutively grey and full of a light, perpetual drizzle. Waiting in line for my third hot drink for the morning, I try and unpack why this feels so hard. That’s when I realise, we haven’t had to properly expose ourselves to winter since 2019. Are you also feeling the sting of this winter?
When the ‘winter blues’ becomes a clinical problem
I type Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) into a search engine, wondering if it is this that afflicts me. I recall learning about the disorder last year, and the very fitting acronym that so accurately describes the disorder’s effect. It was coined by psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal when he moved from South Africa to Scandinavia and noticed a type of seasonal depression. Specifically, a depression that coincided with the north’s harsh winter.
Since the name was coined however, it has been difficult to decipher the difference between SAD and the ‘winter blues’, SAD’s sub-clinical counterpart. Because the two share almost identical symptom profiles, they are often conflated and mislabelled. Many people feel a bit low when stuck inside after a week of cold, rainy weather. To have SAD, however, one must have suffered significant, seasonal mood swings for 2+ years; swings that interfere with your ability to show up and perform at work, or make you feel like your quality of life is being washed away with each winter rainfall. These changes them spontaneously improve as the seasons change and the sun begins to shine more regularly again.
How do the changing seasons affect our mood?
Compared to other mood disorders and psychological conditions, SAD hasn’t received much attention in the way of research. Therefore, experts aren’t entirely sure why some people suffer from clinically significant levels of the winter blues. The research that has been done suggests the change in seasons has the capacity to disrupt our circadian rhythm, our 24-hour internal clock. Circadian rhythms are largely governed by sunlight exposure, and are responsible for regulating our overall activity and function, including our energy levels and the drive to sleep or wake.
It is for this reason that SAD is more common in cold-climate areas in the northern hemisphere, especially those situated north of the arctic circle (where the seasons are so extreme the sun never rises, or never sets, depending on time of year). Surprisingly, SAD has little to do with how much sun hits the skin; rather it is how much sun we absorb through our eyes.
At the back of our eyes sits the regulator of our circadian rhythm – the ‘suprachiasmatic nucleus’ or SCN. Changes to the light the SCN receives has a domino effect, firstly on our body clock, then subsequently our mood (this sensitivity to types of light is also why blue light from technology can interfere with our quality of sleep). Therefore, it is a myth that skin pigmentation, colour, or race is a vulnerability factor for SAD. It’s more about your geographical location with respect to the equator, as well as the lifestyle you maintain.
It is also believed that the change of season muddles our hormones, particularly the hormones melatonin and serotonin, which oversee wellbeing, sleep, and mood. Melatonin is especially relevant to SAD and winter blues because we naturally produce more melatonin (the sleep hormone) when it is darker. This explains why in winter, at 7.30pm, after two full hours of evening darkness, you feel considerably more wound down and ready for bed than you do at the same time in summer. Or maybe that’s just me.
What does SAD look like?
SAD is quite a rare condition in Australia, I learn, affecting roughly 1 in 300 Australians. Both the winter blues and SAD are bought on by the same environmental factors and have the same symptom profile. The difference is the severity – it’s common to feel a few of the following symptoms as the days shorten and weather turns wet. It’s a red flag if you persistently feel lots of them and find they are impacting your everyday functioning.
- Sleeping more
- Experiencing profound daytime drowsiness or fatigue
- Less or loss of interest and pleasure in activities you usually enjoy
- Social retreat
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Reduced or diminished sex drive
- Poor concentration and focus
- Unclear thoughts
- Increased appetite
- A preference for sweet foods and carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Physical problems, headaches, dry skin, back pain, muscle soreness.
If you feel many of these symptoms regularly and regardless of season, it’s possible you are experiencing depression and should seek support.
What can I do about it?
Having identified with several of the above symptoms, I’m comforted to know that I’m experiencing something common for those living through a dreary Melbourne winter. However, many of the strategies to manage winter blues are easy to try out. If you’re feeling the slump like I am, try to:
- Stick to a routine
- Get outside in high UV times of the day (being mindful of sun protection, even in winter)
- Prioritise social activities
- Eat a well-balanced diet
- Embrace self-love – be an unapologetic pleasure seeker
- Curate a living space that is warm and clean
- Consider aromatherapy (essential oils in your living space)
- Invite colour into your life – this could be artwork, clothing, or even in baking (I opt for flowers)
- Regulate your mood with music that doesn’t match the winter weather
- Don’t put pressure on yourself to get into a better mood, expect that it will happen slowly and ride it out with supportive others
- Don’t take on too much and know what your time of day is your strength and weakness – plan around this.
If you’re still struggling or have noticed a seasonal pattern over time, it might be worth seeing your GP or a psychologist who can help create a treatment plan. Regardless, if you’re feeling a bit blue, make the most of the gaps between the clouds, take care of yourself, and think of the warm, sunny days ahead. After all, spring isn’t far away.