Where Did The Sun Go?

Op-Ed: Every Halloween, just as the clock turns back to midnight, I feel a sense of both unequalled joy and deep sadness.

One the one hand, it’s midnight on Halloween; who doesn’t want another spooky hour to party? But on the other hand, it means the mark of something dark and more sinister.

The sun sets dangerously early.

Of course, the sun sets early everywhere in the winter. In my hometown of Dallas, the sun sets at 6 p.m. In New York, today, the sun will set at 4:29 p.m. That’s not a lot of daylight.

There are solutions–I could get up earlier than my typical rising time of 9 a.m. but, as a student, I spend almost all of my days inside; I work out inside, then go to the library inside, and then (maybe) go to class. By the time I’ve finished a long day of academic work it is dark outside, and I was only in the sun for about an hour.

There is no doubt that this lack of sunshine has a serious effect on my mood. I know it, because the difference I feel between a grey winter day and one filled with sunshine is dramatic. It is not the cold that bothers me; it is the dark days of winter.

Seasonal Affective Disorder touches about four to six percent of people in the world. It is widely believed that another 10 to 20 percent may experience a mild form of SAD.

Symptoms vary, but include many of the following: weight gain or loss, craving starches and sweets, fatigue, over-sleeping, and avoiding social situations. Many who experience mild forms bear little trouble carrying on with their regular lives.

For some, however, the experience is debilitating.

My second winter in New York City was probably the most difficult winter so far. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I felt tired and sad, found it difficult to get up and go to class, and constantly took naps. When I woke up, the sun was already down.

It was a hard winter, and at the time I never before sought mental health treatment. I just thought I had “the blues.” When warmer weather and longer days loomed nearer, I imagined my sudden increase in happiness and energy was simply a result of the end of the year. No more school, end of finals, a long and relaxing summer awaited me–I didn’t have to think about it anymore.

And then my third winter arrived. I felt just as listless, tired, and heavy. It was, quite simply, unbearable. When I talked to a friend about it, she turned to me and said, “Liz, I think your depression might be slightly seasonal.” She wasn’t wrong.

I talked to my doctor about it and she told me about how many women my age suffer from SAD, even if mildly. In fact, Seasonal Affective Disorder occurs four times more often in women than in men, and women have higher incidences of depression in general.  Although the reasons for this are unclear, researchers often cite hormonal differences, deeper involvement in personal relationships, and longer life spans than men.

The good news about SAD is that it is highly treatable. Because I was in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy treatment, weekly meetings with my doctor became more like “coaching” sessions: how to effectively deal with my sadness, how to be kind to myself, etc. Changing the way I thought about small things every day made me less anxious, less bummed out.

These weekly sessions were enormously helpful and made me realize that the winter doesn’t last forever. It may sound trite, but in my hometown of Texas the winters end in February. I was not yet accustomed to how long the cold would last.

There is also something that anyone can purchase to help with the seasonal feelings of despair: the light box. The light box is particularly effective in helping patients receive the daily amount of light that they usually enjoy in the warmer months.

The difference between natural and artificial light is staggering. While outdoors on a sunny day, the sun is 500 to 1,000 times brighter than an office or indoor lighting. It is little wonder why people feel so low in the winter.

Still, light box or not, the best piece of advice I can give is be kind to yourself. Recognize that it is okay to feel down sometimes, and anger or resentment towards that sadness is often unhelpful. Sometimes the best thing to do is accept your feelings as they come, think as critically about them as you can, and do what you have to do to get through the day (in a productive way).

For example, I make sure that I exercise at least three days a week, especially in the winter. I feel connected to my body, have more energy, and remain clear-headed. I’m also a big advocate of sleep. Getting enough sleep is paramount to alleviate stress, and to simply “feel better.”

Most of all, I think it’s important to allow myself “chill days.” While I try not to make a habit of it, once every week or two weeks, if I feel like staying in bed all day and reading a book, I do it. Be kind to yourself. The winter ends. And you’re not alone!

Don’t forget, if you are feeling helpless, depressed, or feel like harming yourself, there is a 24 hour hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Feature photo courtesy of Rudy and Peter Skitterians.