Seasonal Affective Disorder – Created By a Productivity-Centered Society?
Living in England, I’ve spent the last few months in very dreary weather. It rains a lot, it’s cold, and it’s often cloudy for a good portion of the day, if not the vast majority. It’s just a part of living here — when you decide to move to England, it’s something that you’re aware of. People make jokes about the English weather being bad, but in the winter, they have it right.
Lately I’ve been feeling like I might be dealing with some symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). I’m much more tired than usual, despite a reduced training load; I find it harder to gather motivation to write; and I spend a lot more time sleeping (which doesn’t seem to help my tiredness).
After realizing that this could be connected to the weather, I bought a full-spectrum lamp (also known as a “SAD lamp”) to see if it might help. I wake up to it every morning and I keep it on my desk so I can get a blast of sunlight every once in a while throughout the day. It seems to be working — a lot of people find that light therapy is effective, especially if their SAD isn’t very severe.
SAD seems to be getting more recognition as time goes on — more people are talking about it, and more people are seeking treatment for it, though it can be very difficult to diagnose.
Anyway, I was thinking about SAD and my symptoms today. As far as depressive symptoms go, mine are pretty mild; it’s mostly manifested in energy and motivation. As a writer and a graduate student, that can have a big impact on my work. Trying to be a writer while studying for a PhD isn’t easy, and it requires a lot of focus to balance both of those responsibilities. A lot of times, it’s pretty easy. In the winter in the UK, it’s not so easy.
Today, when the weather went from sunny to rainy, I immediately found it more difficult to keep writing. I was reflecting on this a little bit when I started thinking about other creatures. Bears, marmots, hedgehogs and bats all hibernate through the winter to some degree or another, and no one says that they have SAD! There probably aren’t any marmots that get stressed about the productive time that they’re missing while they’re hibernating in the alpine winter.
But here we are, concerned about SAD and how it affects our motivation and how much we can accomplish in a day. Maybe seasonal affective disorder isn’t a disorder at all — maybe it’s just a natural thing that a lot of animals go through during times of reduced light. Melatonin, serotonin, and the body’s circadian rhythm are all connected to sunlight, and it makes sense that organisms would have decreased energy and motivation during the winter.
Don’t get me wrong — there are definitely some people who suffer from full-blown depression during the winter, and that’s definitely a disorder. But maybe being tired and less motivated helped early humans conserve energy throughout the winter when food was scarce and it was more dangerous to be out in the open. And there are a few researchers who think this is the case.
Interestingly, melatonin, which is one of the neurotransmitters affected by SAD, is one of the things that regulates hibernation in animals. One study found that melatonin ceased to fluctuate on the expected 24-hour cycle in hamsters who were hibernating; it was elevated around the clock. Melatonin secretion is increased in the dark, which is a lot more often during the winter.
So it seems like SAD might not be such a disorder after all. What do you think? Has SAD been pathologized with the rise of a society that’s ultra-focused on the idea of being productive at all times? Or am I just trying to rationalize my being tired and unmotivated to get away from writing my dissertation and cleaning my flat?
Revel FG, Herwig A, Garidou ML, Dardente H, Menet JS, Masson-Pévet M, Simonneaux V, Saboureau M, & Pévet P (2007). The circadian clock stops ticking during deep hibernation in the European hamster. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104 (34), 13816-20 PMID: 17715068