One of the most glorious of things happened this morning. When I woke up, the sun was shining on my face! Oh miraculous life!
It has been a very long time since we have had the pleasure of a visit from the sun here. We have been seeing more than our fair share of rain. It’s been so long since I felt natural warmth on my skin. In fact, it’s been exactly 11 sleeps ago that we had a day where we saw the sun. And prior to that it had rained for what felt like decades as well.
Weird stuff was starting to happen after ten consecutive days of cloud cover. My psychological health was not in a sunny place. Throw in a very wet natural disaster and I had completely forgotten what happens when you wake up to the sun.
Natural disasters and cyclonic circumstances aside, the weather can affect our mood and have some significant impacts on our lives.
Rain pretty much makes all of life more difficult. It's super frustrating when you run out of clean undies and have to face the never ever conundrum of where you've left your umbrella. But over the past few weeks, my mood has also deteriorated somewhat. I’m sleeping a lot. But poorly. And I’m irritable and dysphoric (more so than usual anyway). There’s also a well-worn carpet trail between the couch and the fridge. And it’s marked with carbohydrate crumbs.
I have been socialising a lot less, staying in at home thus missing out on one of the most powerful natural antidepressants of all. And then by staying in, I’m probably feeling more tired and low. And then this lack of socialisation is probably contributing to a lack of stimulation causing more frustration and restlessness.
There’s a lot of variable, sometimes-conflicting research about the weather and our mood, so broad, general take-aways from this are not always best to be had. Nevertheless, here they are.
In general, the daily influence of the weather will have more of an impact on a person’s negative mood, rather than helping one’s positive mood. So for people on the ‘depressive spectrum’ (aka yours truly), higher temperatures can raise our mood, whilst things like wind or not enough sun can make us feel even lower.
But it’s the effects of light, or lack of, that will probably have the most significant impact.
As it turns out, there’s even a weather-related mental illness. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a very real kind of depressive disorder. Listed in the psychiatrist’s bible (the DSM) with this condition the person’s major depressive episode is connected to a specific season. Whilst we most commonly observe SAD affecting people in the autumn or winter months, a minority of people will experience SAD during the spring and summer months too. In America this condition is estimated to affect 10 million people.
Either type of SAD usually includes some of the symptoms that are present in major depression, such as feelings of guilt, a loss of interest or pleasure in activities previously enjoyed, ongoing feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, or physical problems such as headaches and stomach aches. In addition, symptoms of SAD tend to reoccur at about the same time every year.
This is by no means a new condition. In 1974 Faust and colleagues studied 16,000 students in Basel City, Switzerland. Although not the most robust study designed, the researchers nonetheless found that nearly one-third of the girls and one fifth of the boys responded negatively to certain weather conditions. Symptoms reported included poor sleep, irritability, and dysphoric (depressed) mood.
For a couple of years, I had the privilege of living in Australia’s capital city. There were many things about this big town that I adored/tolerated – open spaces, large roads, limited traffic, driving in circles, bicycle paths to everywhere, public servants. But the weather was not one of these. The first winter was a novel experience. I marvelled at a tree’s ability to change colour and then drop its leaves. I bought copious amounts of scarves and coats. I felt grateful that someone told me not to pour hot water on my car windscreen to rid it of frost.
Unfortunately the second autumn announced itself when I was already in the throes of an episode of a mental illness. And whilst I can’t blame Canberra’s whether in its entirety for my mental state, I think the frost on the ground and the thick blanket of fog may have been a bit of a contributing factor. Even though I had a shitload of pretty coats.
There are various explanations as to why someone might experience SAD, but in general the theories centre on the amount of light (or lack thereof) getting into the brain. When we stand in the sun we tend to absorb bits of light through the thin parts of our skulls and this helps to dictate our circadian rhythms (our body clocks).
Light triggers many chemical reactions in our brains that can make us feel more alert and more content. The presence of light causes the pineal gland to stop producing melatonin - the sleep hormone that makes us tireder and less alert. Because light prevents melatonin production this in turns means that it makes us feel more awake, switched on and alert and with more energy. As the winter days get shorter and darker, or we experience 10 consecutive days of flood rain, we might suffer from melatonin mayhem deprivation making us feel sleepy, cranky and craving hot chips.
In general, sunlight also helps us to produce serotonin (one of our pleasure chemicals in the brain) and improve neurotransmitter activity and function. Research has also suggested that people who experience SAD may also produce less Vitamin D, which is believed to play a role in serotonin activity.
The clouds are coming in over my head again now. But it’s okay. I’ve had a day where I bounced out of bed and felt alert and joyful. I ate hardly any carbs. And even though I drove home in the rain, I've got some hopefulness back. The sun might just shine again.