Mental Health

Seasonal Affective Disorder: What can we learn from people in the Arctic Circle about seasonal mood shifts?

As the nights grow longer and the mercury plummets, it's important to look after our mental health. But what can someone who spends almost a quarter of the year in darkness teach us about seasonal mood shifts?

Seasonal Affective Disorder: What can we learn from people in the Arctic Circle about seasonal mood shifts?
Niellah Arboine

When I think about my happiest memories, they usually have a lot in common: it’s warm, the sun is soaking into my skin, and I’m probably in a large body of water. Sometimes it's the turquoise river in Ardèche or I'm floating on my back in the sea on an unusually warm day in Hastings. I feel calm, safe and refreshed.

My most joyful memories never seem to be in the cold or dark. Weirdly, even though I’m used to the flux of seasons we experience in the northern hemisphere, I can’t help but be shocked every time the clocks go back, leaves tumble from the deciduous trees and we experience the collective onset of winter blues. I can feel myself becoming sluggish, flat and struggling to rip myself from the sofa.

As the colder months draw in, mood changes are pretty normal. Seasonal affective disorder (aptly abbreviated to SAD) affects three in 100 people in the UK, and subsyndromal SAD (SSD) around 10-15 per cent of people. Symptoms include a persistent low mood, feeling lethargic, and irritability. While the cause isn’t completely understood, it could be down to natural body clocks being disturbed, too much melatonin (the hormone that makes us feel tired) being produced, and lower serotonin levels due to the lack of sun.

Yet, when the clocks turned back this year, it felt especially rubbish – and I wasn’t alone. Standing in the kitchen, jumpers on and nursing a cup of tea, my housemate and I tried to pinpoint exactly why winter feels so much harder this year. We concluded it must be a mix of having a not-so-hot-girl summer coupled with the weird, unpleasant nostalgia of lockdown. After spending the best part of a year confined to our homes, I find myself here again – voluntarily.

During those dark days in 2020 staring at the wall, I promised myself that when lockdown was over I’d be out in the world, seeing friends, enthusiastically saying yes to everything and everyone, and properly living. But now, I’m back in my room, cancelling on friends and staying in bed as long as I possibly can.

Then one evening, idly scrolling through TikTok, cocooned in my duvet and feeling particularly sorry for myself, I came across the photographer Cecilia Blomdahl, originally from Sweden who now documents her life in Svalbard. “It’s official guys!” she says in a cheery voice, “This right here is the last sunset of this year.” On the islands of Svalbard, close to the North Pole, temperatures plummet to -16ºC in the winter, when the polar nights begin and the sun sets for two-and-a-half months.

So what better way to find out how to deal with the winter blues than from someone who won’t see daylight again until next year, and who experiences a level of cold most of us can't even imagine.

Surprisingly, Cecilia’s outlook on winter is pretty optimistic.

“When it comes to my mood, I think I am a lot more relaxed than other parts of the year,” she tells Kerrang!. “Everything is cosy and magical, and this week when we have had the aurora in the sky almost 24/7, you just walk around with a smile on your face.”

Her top tips for alleviating some of the winter blues start with a sunrise lamp mimicking natural light and helping our body clocks adjust in the mornings.

“I work out all year round, but really make it a priority this time of year; it gives you that extra energy boost that you need and makes you happy,” she adds. And, of course, vitamin D supplements, which can help combat those feelings of sluggishness and fatigue.

A lack of sun leads to vitamin D deficiency, which is associated with depression, cognitive function impairment and other mood disorders. And for myself as a Black person, we have to spend even more time in the sun than people with lighter skin to produce the same amount of vitamin D.

More than anything, though, Cecilia believes we should embrace the darkness.

“Don't just sit inside while the snow is falling outside, go outside, enjoy it! I love the darkness, it is so peaceful,” she says, adding that you should probably invest in a good headlamp and reflective gear before heading off to explore the frozen wilderness.

“Call your friend and go on a walk together, take your kids outside to go sledging, if you have snow. If you don't have snow, maybe go to a park or playground,” she suggests. “Living without any daylight whatsoever for two-and-a-half months really shows you that the darkness isn't something to hold you back from going outside.”

Cecilia’s outlook has helped me to recontextualise how I feel about darkness and winter. I think of those other joyful memories in my life. Holding my mum’s hand as a child as we watched the fireworks cascade over our heads, lighting up the sky. Sledging down a hill on a tray in a pathetic covering of snow with my housemate last year, and laughing so much it hurt. Polo necks, mulled cider, lights flickering off the slick-black Thames, slippers, duvets, and cuddles in front of the TV.

Realistically, I am still going to feel slower and the darkness isn’t going anywhere – this flux in weather and, by extension, our mental health is part of life. But in many ways, it helps me appreciate warmer days to come.

“The dark winter is a cosy time of year,” smiles Cecilia. “Put up tons of string lights in your house, go out stargazing, enjoy that cup of coffee or tea a little bit extra.

“Start looking for the beauty in it and I think you will find it sooner than you think!”

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