As someone who hails from Virginia — land of the humidity and sunlight that persist through the southern states of America — when I moved to Scotland, I was shocked to find that during the winter months, the sun can set as early as 3:30 p.m. Like, seriously? That being said, I didn’t expect to be affected very much by it; I’m an introvert who spends most of their time indoors anyways, so what difference does it make what time the sun sets? But my first winter here, I started sleeping for up to 16 hours at a time. I would turn off my alarms in a state of half-consciousness and wake up at 5 p.m., after the sun had already set for the day. Confused, and in an attempt to not further mess up my sleep schedule, I would pull an all-nighter and refuse to allow myself to sleep until the next night, but would inevitably fall asleep in the late afternoon, and then wake up at 6 a.m. the following morning.
I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, until I talked to a friend and realized I might be suffering from symptoms of SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. Aptly acronymized, SAD is a type of depression that occurs in the winter months, and is often thought to be related to lack of exposure to sunlight. According to the NHS, symptoms of SAD can include a persistent low mood, loss of interest in daily activities, irritability, feelings of despair or worthlessness, feeling lethargic during the day, sleeping for longer than usual, finding it hard to get up in the morning, and gaining weight. Personally, I was surprised to find that I was having such a physical reaction to the lack of sunlight – I might have expected to be more stereotypically ‘sad,’ but what I didn’t expect was the way my body would react instead.
As the sun sets earlier and earlier each day, SAD season has already begun. It can be frustrating, especially as schoolwork picks up and exam season approaches, to have to deal with more concentration issues. Especially in a pandemic world where we spend so much time indoors, isolated from the ones we love, many are dealing with depression and anxiety, and SAD is the last thing anyone needs to contend with. So here are a couple ways in which you can help to self-treat your SAD.
While studies are mixed on how effective light therapy is, some say that it is helpful, which means it certainly can’t hurt. Unfortunately, medically-certified light boxes can be expensive, but there are more affordable options out there (like this £30 one from Amazon, or this £40 from Stress No More). There are also different types of light therapy you can try; there are light boxes like the ones linked above that you can sit in front of for a certain period of time (ideally in the morning to be the most effective), or you can try a sunlight-simulating alarm clock if you feel like that would work best for you. That being said, sunrise alarm clocks are usually not medically certified, and ones that are can be more expensive (like this £60 one from John Lewis).
Other Personal Steps
There are a number of things you can do for yourself in an attempt to lessen your symptoms of SAD, like trying to spend more time outside during the day. Try to spend as much time in the natural sunlight as you can to make up for the lack of hours it’s available, whether this means going on a walk during your lunch break or simply sitting outside while you do your readings. I know this can be difficult as it gets colder, but bring a warm drink with you and wear layers! When you’re indoors, sit near your windows and make sure your curtains are open as wide as they can be. Things like exercise and a balanced diet can help with all forms of depression. In addition to eating certain foods to help with depression (like foods high in antioxidants and various vitamins), you can look into taking Vitamin D supplements, either in the form of daily pills or an injection administered by a health professional.
Remember that the above tips are absolutely not meant to replace medical treatment, and it is so important to seek professional help should you feel that you need it. Talk to your GP if you feel that you may need counselling or to take antidepressants, and remember that there is absolutely zero shame in seeking help. Take care of yourselves, everyone! It’s been a rough year for us all, and SAD should not be allowed to make it worse.