Keeping Mentally Stable In An Unstable Environment

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I’m one of those people who usually wakes up in a daze — what day is it, where am I, what are these crumbs in my bed from, etc. But these past couple months have been increasingly disorienting due to the total unpredictability of the weather. In January when I was home in Cleveland, there were endless days of single digit temperatures and snow. Now that I am back in Athens, Ohio, I have had dreary, 40 degree weeks punctuated with 70 degrees and sun some days. Just last week schools were closed because of an impending flash flood, only to have a sublimely bright and 80 degree day instead. This problem is certainly not confined to Ohio, so here are some facts and tips to keep mental stability in environmental instability.

According to Mental Health America, seasonal depression usually begins its onset when somebody is between 20 and 30. This pinpoints millennials as those starting to feel the effects of the condition. The symptoms follow those of standard depression; lethargy, anxiety, overeating, mood changes and more that inhibit us from operating as we normally would. This would explain why staring out into the grey, drizzly morning makes you want to crawl back into bed even faster than usual. However, the causes are purely natural as the reduced sunlight in the winter months affects serotonin, a mood affecting neurotransmitter.

To those who are aware of their yearly cycle of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), this is nothing new. But when some days are bright and sunny and just fill you with rainbows and waterfalls, and the next day is grim and dark and brings you down and you’re not quite sure why – you’re not just sad, it’s SAD. The symptoms of SAD also get worse the further you live from the equator, so if you’re in the south don’t feel left out.

The exact cause of SAD isn’t entirely clear — yes we know that serotonin lowers in response to decreased sunlight, but why? Some experts say it is because of what is known as the circadian rhythm in humans, which is essentially the 24-hour clock that regulates when you get tired and when you feel energized. Your circadian rhythm is often aligned with sunlight and when it gets dark or light. However when the amount of sunlight changes rapidly from week to week and day to day, it can have a serious effect on one’s circadian rhythm. One of the best practices I have found is to get up and get out earlier on days that are sunnier, thereby maximizing the amount of time your circadian rhythm keeps you juiced up.

That leads to another vital piece of advice for handling SAD during unpredictable weather — take advantage of the sunny days. Things don’t always work out and you might get stuck with a mountain of paperwork on a beautiful afternoon, but this forces you to ask if your mental health is more important than one assignment or project. Plus, it’s March; even on those sunny days it still gets dark fairly early, so you’ll have plenty of time to hunch over your laptop in a nervous fit that evening. Also it’s not like you have to stick a flower in your hair, go off to San Francisco and join the circus. Hell you can even take your work outside (depending how far your wifi reaches). Just get out there and soak up the sun.

However this environmental instability means that those sunny days can be pretty far apart, so what to do then if sunshine daydream doesn’t come for a couple weeks? If you have not already, start taking life advice from Comedy Central’s Broad City. One of the main characters, Ilana, is a millennial that suffers from SAD but that doesn’t stop her from being her normal, chipper self. Instead what she does is get a SAD lamp that, ironically, makes her happy. But now that the lid has been blown by Abbi and Ilana, everybody wants a SAD lamp and every company wants to sell you one per market nature (for example, Reese’s Pieces sales increased 65 percent after E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial). But The Cut has compiled a concise list of the best SAD lamps on Amazon, and while some of the prices may seem a bit steep (ranging from $65-230), how much are you spending on anti-depressants for winter blues?

But if you can’t afford a happy SAD lamp and there’s no sunshine on your shoulders, there are also natural remedies. The first of which is also applicable to year-round depression (and most other emotional disorders): simple exercise. Moving and staying active has been shown to release the same neurotransmitters that are lacking when SAD is in effect. You don’t need to go for the world weightlifting record either, a 2004 study in The Primary Care Companion To The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry showed that it is actually the frequency and consistency of exercising that releases serotonin, rather than the difficulty. The rest of the natural remedies also follow along with advice for regular depression including eating a healthy diet (storm clouds are not an excuse to order-in), talking to somebody through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (or just somebody who will listen) and adding a Vitamin D supplement.

There is hope if you are feeling depressed this time of year, even with the weather moving unpredictably back and forth. Plenty of options exist, both natural and artificial, to help the millions of people who do suffer from SAD. If none of those options work for you, remember spring starts in just a couple weeks. Happy is right around the corner.