How Seasonal Affective Disorder Feels From The Inside
By Emma Phipps
Content warning: suicidal ideation
It’s like clockwork. Every year, right in the middle of October, I find myself stricken with panic and exhaustion that has nothing to do with my job or my personal life and everything to do with one simple environmental factor. The sun is going down, and all it takes to make my stomach drop is one glance out the window to see the sky growing dark by 6:30 p.m. The feeling is primal and consuming, and it’s at the root of my seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Once classified as its own diagnosis, SAD is now categorized as a variety of major depression that manifests in a seasonal pattern. For most, SAD occurs in the winter months, as the weather becomes colder and the days grow shorter, but some experience seasonal depression during spring and summer. The symptoms of SAD often mimic major depression, including feelings of sadness and hopelessness, increased anxiety, disrupted sleep patterns, loss of energy and motivation, changes in eating habits, and even thoughts of death.
I first noticed my SAD symptoms in my freshman year of high school when I joined the swim team. Our daily practices took place in a windowless basement pool after school, so by the time we emerged to be collected by our parents, the sky was already dark. I woke up before dawn to catch the school bus, spent the whole day inside classrooms, and missed the rest of the afternoon light during those swim practices. Soon, I started to feel almost as though it were dark all the time, and my mood darkened because of it.
It wasn’t until college that I finally articulated exactly what it is that sends my brain into an anxious, depressive spiral from mid-October until April or May. As the sun rises later and sets earlier, and the nights slowly but surely consume the days, I feel in a very literal way as though darkness is surrounding me on all sides. It’s an existential claustrophobia. No matter where I turn, no matter how I try to adjust my schedule, night is there, waiting to swallow me whole.
Every symptom I experience is a byproduct of that simple fact. I panic when I realize it’s already dark and I haven’t eaten dinner yet, like I’m being chased by a force far outside my control that’s stealing daylight from me. As soon as the sun goes down, I start to lose my ability to keep track of time, thinking it to be 10:30 p.m. when it’s actually 7:45 p.m. Late evening usually finds me scurrying around my apartment anxiously trying to finish everything before bedtime, even though bedtime is still hours away.
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My sleep schedule suffers from there — either I want to go to bed far too early, or the confusion causes me to stay up far too late. The lethargy and exhaustion always lead me to sleep in, sometimes passing out for as long as 14 hours, which only makes it harder to fall asleep the next night. The longer the cycle persists, the more lopsided my schedule becomes, making me sleep through the morning and miss more of that precious daylight.
Lots of intersecting factors increased my likelihood of suffering from SAD. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, seasonal depression is four times more likely to occur in women, and younger adults are at higher risk as well. My family has a long history of mental health issues, especially depression. All of those factors combined put people like me at much higher risk.
When I bring it up among my friends, there seems to be a general misconception that my altered mood comes from the cold weather or the impending holidays. Though those factors can exacerbate symptoms of SAD for some, they’ve never been my primary complaints. I don’t find biting cold any more uncomfortable than scorching heat, and the holidays have always been a bright spot in those darker months. For me, it all comes down to light — or lack thereof.
And according to most scientists, lack of sunlight is at the root of all seasonal depression. One study, published in the medical journal The Lancet in 2002, found that the brain produced less serotonin, the neurotransmitter thought to be responsible for our happiness and sense of wellbeing, in winter than in seasons when sunlight lasts longer. Other studies suggest that it’s an imbalance in melatonin, not serotonin, that causes seasonal depression. Either way, the resulting symptoms are somewhat similar, since melatonin is the chemical responsible for regulating circadian rhythms, and its disruption in winter months could account for SAD sufferers’ feelings of lethargy and near-constant exhaustion.
The anxiety caused by the encroaching darkness is, for me, always accompanied by those feelings of lethargy and exhaustion. I lose all my motivation and have to force myself to socialize. Going to the gym or walking to the grocery store seem like herculean tasks. It just seems easier to stay in bed, eating take-out and rewatching Parks and Recreation for the tenth time. Unfortunately, all of those things just end up contributing to the depression and the anxiety until I gradually slip into a state of mind that’s frightening and far less likely to happen to me at other times of year.
Suicidal thoughts and ideation aren’t uncommon for SAD sufferers, and when I first started getting them in high school, they terrified me. I would be at the top of a flight of stairs, and the thought would come unbidden into my head that it would be a good idea to hurl myself downwards. As time went on, the ideation evolved and got more creative — ”Go sit in the snow and wait for death to take you! Lie down in the street and let traffic do its thing!” — and it took me a while to realize that it always started rearing its ugly head at around the same time each year.
The suicidal ideation certainly doesn’t alleviate the feeling of being relentlessly pursued by a dark force, but as I’ve learned to live with my illness, I’ve become better at remembering that it’s a result of faulty brain chemistry. Any time the ideas pop into my head, I remind myself that I definitely want to live. But I wasn’t always so good at dealing with it, and there were times when I thought I might somehow be irreparably broken inside.
Maybe I would have been able to figure out what was going on with me a little sooner if SAD was better understood and treated as less of a superficial problem. Many people I’ve talked to think it all comes down to physical discomfort. Few know about the chemical shifts that occur in our brains when we’re exposed to less daylight. The acronym, too, is, admittedly, a little problematic — I have SAD, but that doesn’t mean I’m just sad. The cocktail of emotions and mood states that come with SAD are complicated, and they differ from person to person.
Too many people suffer for years the way I did, ignorant to what’s happening in their brains and believing that they have to get through it alone, chalking it up to a case of “winter doldrums.” But once you understand, things start to get better.
As with all mental illnesses, the more we talk about seasonal depression, the more people will understand and accept it. It’s treatable in a number of ways, including light therapy, medication, vitamin supplements, and talk therapy. For me, talking to a therapist has made the biggest difference. And though light therapy and medication are too expensive for me, my therapist suggested some more cost-effective solutions, like sticking to a steady sleep schedule and regular exercise, both of which have helped a lot.
The one good thing to come out of my seasonal depression has been my profound love of spring. It goes beyond the stereotypical appreciation of blooming flowers and warmer weather. It almost reaches back to ancient religious celebrations of rebirth; I’m finally alive again, having escaped a seemingly inescapable darkness, turning my face upwards to soak up the sun.