When Sakshi Verma, a final-year medical student from Lucknow, first went to Ukraine for college, she of course had her reservations about leaving her family and friends behind to venture out in a totally new space. But what she didn’t expect was for the weather to take a toll on her mental health.
“The weather was so strong, dark, and cold. I was barely able to keep up with myself,” says Verma. And the difference in the weather was stark. In her first few months there, a lively and colourful summer turned into a winter that was just black and white.
“There were no colours around, only snow and white surfaces, and tall standing trees with no leaves.”Sakshi Verma to FIT
While Verma didn’t completely understand why the weather was making her feel gloomy, she knew she had to “manage” this because she couldn’t see herself putting up with depression for the next six winters.
What Verma went through is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in medical terms. Dr Kritika Zutshi, a clinical psychologist at Fortis Maharashtra, explains that SAD is a cyclic disorder, with symptoms that are similar to that of conventional depression.
'End Up Sleeping All Day': Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Decreased interest in any activity
Increased appetite and weight gain
Craving for carbohydrates
A sense of helplessness and hopelessness
Thoughts of self-harm
28-year-old Shreya Mishra, who is a doctor in Indore, too shares that ever since she started college, her mood “would be heavier, crankier than usual” in winters, which forced her to seek medical help. However, anti-depressants, more exposure to sunlight, and a proper exercise regimen helped her take control of her mental health.
Yash (55), who used to work as a teacher with an NGO and moved to London in her 40s, also suffered from SAD.
She shares that everything around her would go dark at 3 pm, which made the cold weather all the more depressing. She’d end up sleeping all day, spend excessive time on social media, and not bathe for days at a stretch.
While SAD usually manifests itself during winters (November-March in India), which is why it is also called Winter Affective Disorder, it can also be diagnosed in people in the summer or spring season. But, in that case, the symptoms are reversed:
Increased interest in any activity
Decreased appetite and weight loss
Dr Trideep Choudhary, a consultant psychiatrist at Fortis Gurugram, explains that according to most of the studies that were undertaken in the West, SAD occurs only in winters, and for someone to be diagnosed with it, they must have undergone the symptoms for at least two cycles (ie two years).
But, in his practice over the years, he’s come to realise that in India, most SAD patients suffer from the disorder during the summer months when the sun is at its harshest. He added that it might also occur in the rainy season when a lot of people are cooped up inside their homes with limited social interactions.
'SAD Girl' Summer
Subha, the founder of MSAAW Foundation, is one such person who faced SAD during the summer months. She experienced this in Bangkok and Chennai, where the weather was hot and humid, and going out became a struggle for her. The heat would make her tired, agitated, and impact her mental health severely.
Shubham Raheja, a media professional in his 20s, is another person who faced SAD during the rainy season. He shares that when he was growing up in Goa, it would rain continuously from July-September, and those were the two-three months when he would feel the lowest.
He says, “I wasn’t able to point a finger that this was what was causing me issues – it’d manifest in other ways like me being extremely moody, unproductive, not wanting to do homework, etc."
When he moved to London for further studies, there would be days in winters when he would not have the motivation to do anything. And it all came crashing down during the lockdown, which is when he was diagnosed with SAD.
Raheja adds, “Every time the weather changes, especially during rains and winters when there’s no sunlight, I have no energy at all. It’s worse in Delhi because the pollution triggers my sinuses, and I fall sick, apart from being mentally exhausted, so it’s all rock bottom."
Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Dr Sandeep Vohra, a psychologist at Apollo Hospital, feels that the very first step for treatment is recognising and acknowledging that you’re not feeling well. He says, “There’s such less awareness that people don’t even realise that what they’re going through is not just everyday stress or mood changes."
Dr Choudhary suggests cognitive behavioural therapy, and taking medication, along with vitamin D supplements. But he also suggests a change in lifestyle that includes more activity and spending more time in sunlight.
Since SAD is usually caused when people don’t get enough exposure to sunlight or natural light, which causes our melatonin to go down, phototherapy really helps. Dr Zutshi explains that phototherapy is done using a light box that diffuses white light. The process, when done for 30 minutes each morning, helps with hormonal changes and helps better the person’s mood.
Raheja too has been taking phototherapy which has helped him significantly, along with communicating and documenting his emotions. For Uday Nanda, the CEO of Upskilled, working out significantly helped his mental health after a “trough of sadness” overtook him during winters.
Who Is at Risk?
There are various studies that show that people in the age group of 18-30 are most probable to suffer from SAD. But, it’s also more prone to women. Dr Choudhary says, “The ratio of male to female SAD patients is 1:4."
While Dr Vohra says that no justification has been laid down till now about why more women are prone to SAD than men, there are three psychosocial and biological factors that might play a role:
Women undergo biochemical changes in their bodies throughout their lives
Women have too many roles to play inside and outside their houses which takes a toll on them
Women’s health problems are not acknowledged as quickly so they grow over time
However, Dr Choudhary adds that anyone who has a family or personal history of psychiatric disorders might also be prone to SAD.