Why are we so SAD about the weather?

Image by Per Olesen on flickr

As September emerged from the last vestiges of summer I definitely felt a shift. A colder flavour to the air, a sky shrouded more heavily by clouds, hesitantly reaching for my long coat but still finding myself with an unwelcome slight chill in my spine as I wait for a train. A rain with bullet raindrops far removed from summer showers. Casually looking out the windows in the evening with a dismayed surprise seeing an encroaching sunset. Winter is coming.


And with these small signals a depression fell over me. I blamed it on other things happening in my life, but still it made little sense to me. These factors likely contributed, but were never the full story. I had my graduation, hanging out in London, catching up with friends I’d not seen for a while, the beginnings of new projects at work and networking with interesting people whilst learning new things at work events. These are the sorts of things that thrill me so I had no reason to feel so down.

But then, with the reappearance of the sun, my spirits soared. Life was, once again, a wonderful adventure with so much potential, so much to look forward to. However, nothing else has actually changed in my day to day life since the sadness initially descended.

I haven’t been diagnosed but I almost certainly suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder to some extent. I’m not the only one, with around 20% of the population suffering from mildly debilitating symptoms associated with this disorder. In Northern Europe, 1 in 10 people suffer some form of it.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (or the apt acronym SAD) is a condition where people experience depression at a particular time of year or during a particular season. Changes in season cause changes in mood and energy levels for sufferers, even leading to symptoms of depression. Symptoms include sleep problems (too much or too little), anxiety, depression, lowered immune system and problems concentrating. What is the cause? There are several factors that can contribute such as the effects of light and a disrupted body clock. The amounts of natural light that we are exposed to help to influence the brain’s control of sleep, appetite, sex drive, temperature, mood and activity. If there isn’t enough light these functions can slow down or even eventually stop. Our body clock is governed by daylight hours and if this is disrupted your body clock can slow down. This can result in tiredness and depression.

Some of the effective treatments for SAD are telling. It is recommended that those who suffer from SAD should spend more time outdoors as that has been shown to reduce symptoms. They should also work to ensure greater exposure to natural light in the home. Treatments also include using a light box for a few hours a day, or a dawn simulation. A dawn simulation mimics the natural process of the sun rising and setting to help regulate our body clock. Essentially, a return to behaving in accordance with nature’s timetable is the cure.

I think it’s clearly a sign of just how important the environment and nature is for us. Our bodies and minds are so in tune with what is happening outdoors that shifts in the season and light patterns entirely changes our brain chemistry. That’s quite mad when you think about it, no wonder we talk about the weather so much! The more we cut ourselves off from this innate connection, the worse we feel because our body relies on that connection to function effectively. SAD is just one example of this, with numerous other health problems (mental and physical) attributable to this cut off.

Although it cannot be entirely argued that our modern lifestyle is the root cause of SAD, it certainly has an impact. We sleep and work hours set out by arbitrary society rules not by the laws of nature. When the night sky tells us to sleep we defy it with artificial light and electronic screens. When the sun rises calling for us to be awake, we drown it out with heavy curtains and instead await shrill alarms. This disconnect means we are completely mismatched with the activity of the planet around us. The planet we depend on.

Horses that are kept in stables all the time are prone to suffering from SAD just like us. And that’s because man and beast are not meant to spend their days indoors away from the environment they evolved to be a part of. In some ways, we’ve become fish out of water without even realising.

Nature carries on without us and recovers when we let it. But we, as a species, cannot carry on without nature, the more we try to the more we struggle, fumbling in the dark.


References:

I learnt a lot about SAD from my A Level psychology but these websites helped give me a refresher for this post. If you’d like to learn more, check them out.

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