One stereotype my cynical New York City friends get right about my new Los Angeles home: Here, overhearing someone musing about astrological activity is as commonplace as discussing the weather. It's so pervasive that when I found myself in a bit of a funk over the past several weeks, my mind automatically flickered to what planetary forces could be at play. In all fairness, if you subscribe to this way of thinking, you know that we were delivered an astrological doozy this spring: Both Venus and Mars have been in retrograde. The former drags up old shit surrounding relationships; with the latter, said shit hits the fan. The fact that I know this illustrates my point.
So my inner New Yorker told me to snap out of my woo-woo haze and look into the actual science of what might be fueling this "off" feeling—aside from the usual suspects of too much stress and too little sleep, of course. And as it turns out, there's actually a fairly common issue that afflicts many people this time of year—the problem is that most people don't know or talk about it.
During my time in New York City (as well as my formative years on the East Coast in general), I spent the winters suffering from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD—a very common type of seasonal depression, especially if you're subjected to dividing your time between the subway, a poorly lit office, and your shoe-box apartment while the polar vortex rages outside. It was one of the reasons I decided to take the leap and move to a much sunnier city thousands of miles away, and for awhile, I really did feel as perpetually blissed out as I'd expected to.
But what I didn't realize is that SAD is not a winter- or even a cold weather–specific disorder. While the lack of serotonin-boosting sunlight and vitamin D tends to exacerbate seasonal depression, most of it is purely psychological—and it tends to strike when we're on the cusp of change.
"Although getting depressed during the dark, dismal winter months is a more readily comprehensible idea, about 10% of SAD sufferers experience the onset of depression in spring or summer," explains Heather Silvestri, PhD, a New York City–based psychologist. (Summertime sadness: It's not just a Lana Del Rey song.)
Understanding why is as simple as knowing the real reason some of us are subject to SAD in the first place, no matter what time of year. "Seasonal affective disorder can be understood as a maladaptive response to change," Silvestri says. "Any change in seasons ushers in plenty of opportunity for positive change—the proverbial 'clean slate'—but the other side of the coin is that there is ample opportunity for self-reproach and hopelessness. Anyone who tends to expect a lot from him or herself and who trends perfectionistic is potentially at increased risk for having difficulty with seasonal change."
What's interesting is that I actually started the year on a thoroughly positive note—I stuck with a regular fitness routine not just for that resolution-specific time period but through February and beyond. I found the time to juggle a demanding workload with my social life. As depressing as the political climate has been, I've felt energized by partaking in protests and staying otherwise involved. But then March hit, and something fell out of balance.
I felt a growing pressure to continue that momentum. The promise of spring and its refreshing shift in energy suddenly felt suffocating rather than energizing as I struggled to align myself with it. I got in a minor car accident, and while I'm beyond thankful that it wasn't worse, the headache of dealing with the damage and my insurance took mental precedence, and the things that keep me centered, like working out and spending time with my friends, began to fall by the wayside.
In turn, the mere pressure to keep it all together triggered a chain reaction from mental to physical and back again. My insomnia flared up, which left me cranky and listless on a regular basis—and that didn't exactly prime me to deal with any additional stress. It wasn't until after conferring with my own therapist—not to mention noticing that my symptoms aligned with several that Silvestri mentioned—that I was able to recognize what was actually at play. Thankfully, I only really needed to identify the pressure I was putting on myself to negotiate this seasonal change so flawlessly for it to lift. I simply told myself it was totally reasonable to be stressed out with everything that was going on in my life and gave myself the permission I needed to take it easy and weather the storm. The fog quickly dissipated, and I'm back to enjoying this very lovely time of year.
How do I know if I'm dealing with the same thing?
It's as simple (and as complicated) as meditating on your own feelings, but there are some other symptoms to consider. "The psychological and emotional markers most typically include changes in appetite, sleep, difficulty concentrating, anhedonia [apathy toward activities you typically enjoy], amotivation, and a depressed mood," says Silvestri. "If you are experiencing any of these symptoms with a seasonal pattern of onset, you should consider undertaking treatment to explore what it is about this time of year that triggers you and to enhance your repertoire of coping strategies for dealing with change."
What are some ways to work through it?
1. Be proactive
Once you've figured out the how and why—which is an accomplishment in and of itself, by the way—you already have the tools to avoid SAD in seasons and years to come. It's useful to "recognize signs that your mood is dipping in enough time to seek support and be proactive about your state of mind," says Silvestri.
2. Plan daily activities that you know lift your mood and well-being
"That lends structure," says Silvestri, who emphasizes that activities like meditation, intuitive eating, and "regular, moderate exercise" are key to counteracting the seasonal blues.
3. Go outside
The mood-boosting impact of spending time outdoors is undeniable: Research shows that sunlight gives our happiness hormone, serotonin, a palpable boost, while simply taking a walk outside can reduce our cortisol levels and blood pressure.
4. Remember that in the end, it's just a new season
It's nature, not a ticking time bomb! "Try consciously framing the change in season as an opportunity, rather than a requirement, to make beneficial changes," says Silvestri. I, for one, will be adopting this as my mantra.