Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve had Seasonal Affective Disorder, but I didn’t know I had it until I was an adult-- at which point I experienced a dream sequence of filler memories that finally made sense of several strange coincidences in my youth.
I vividly remember my dad driving our car past a Christmas tree farm near my childhood home in Massachusetts, on a particularly gray day. I was probably around 8 years old and sitting in the back seat. In my head, LEN’s “Steal My Sunshine,” was playing on the radio, but I doubt in reality that the scene was that on-the-nose. At one point, we drove by a sign that said “No Hope,” which I took as a symbolic reflection on the weather.
Several minutes later, however, we drove past the same sign on our way home from running an errand, and the sun happened to be shining. I was beaming with gratitude and enthusiasm for life and sunshine when I realized that the sign actually said “New Hope”—the name of housing complex that was being built. This, to this day, is a typical metaphor for how I view the weather: I associate grey, grainy days with “no hope”, and sunny days with infinite potential. And while in reality I don’t feel this extreme about the weather, this memory is an apt parable that still makes me chuckle.
Almost 20 years later, I saw an episode of Broad City that featured a SAD therapy light, and it confirmed my experience. I laughed at the hilarious moment when Ilana uses tinfoil to quadruple magnify the effects of her light in the closet of a restaurant where she is haphazardly employed. Her character treats the therapy light like an addict: she can’t go many minutes away from it before she’s crawling back into the closet, desperate for more.
This is how I often feel about sunlight. As I get older, I find that my mood almost directly correlates happiness with sun-- and an increasing number of people feel the same way.
There are a number of data-backed reasons for this. The seasons are shifting because of Global Warming, which is a subtle cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms that most people don’t even realize. It’s gray and likely to be cold in April and May on most of the East Coast now, even though we used to associate these months firmly with “spring”. Meanwhile, unseasonably cold temps make for middling weather in West Coast cities that we used to associate with 360+ days of sunshine a year (looking at you, LA).
Several times in the last few years I have travelled to England in late May, which almost certainly used to mean that my return stateside would be greeted with warm, sunny weather. This is anecdotal, but it used to be the time of year when the bridge from Spring to Summer reliably elapsed. Now, however, I’m not so sure. As someone who travels often, I’ve somewhat comically learned how to adjust my wardrobe for cities whose weather patterns and seasonality are no longer predictable. (Will Santa Fe truly be “hot” in September? Is April really spring in New York?) All of this makes timing and planning my access to sunlight all the more important— and kind of fun.
When travelling, it’s important to get your “sun” early in the morning— this is better for your diurnal rhythm as you “get more bang for your buck”. According to research published in NCBI, “When people are exposed to sunlight or very bright artificial light in the morning, their nocturnal melatonin production occurs sooner, and they enter into sleep more easily at night.” You can get your morning dose from the actual sun, or, if the weather is overcast, the light from a Happy Light. This practice can also help stave off jet-lag: morning light therapy helps your body reset to the local time by telling your brain, affirmatively, that it must be morning because “the sun” is out. Your energy levels will respond accordingly.
Also, walking barefoot on the ground can help your body feel more centered and “spring like” even when the weather remains persistently in “winter mode”. This is because of a phenomenon called grounding, in which the human body exchanges electrons with the Earth’s surface—a real thing!— which can help regulate circadian rhythms and biological clocks.
Visualization can also help stave off the effects of SAD, which sounds cheesy but can be a really effective tool, especially for those who already practice meditation. If ever you have a murky feeling on a day that happens to be gray and overcast, picture that same place on a sunny day, and notice how it makes you feel. If your conception of the problem subsides, you were probably hinging your mood on the weather more than the actual problem— like me and my “No Hope” sign. Which means: it will be much easier to resolve this problem and improve your mood through external measures, like using a Happy Light.
The advent of Seasonal Affective Disorder as a universal concept rather than a niche problem is also compounded by the fact that technology gives us an unhealthy sense of what our true waking hours should be.
Adults and children are constantly bombarded with stimulus— even if it’s the good kind, like a video of puppies— which makes us more vulnerable to distraction and viewing other things. As a result, we exhaust much of our daily mental bandwidth looking at TV and phone screens that emit too much blue light for us to absorb at night. This, of course, keeps us awake and alert for longer—but it also elevates our baseline threshold for stress and feelings of overwhelm. Our brains weren’t meant to process information at the rate they can now consume it because of the Internet. In addition to messing up our circadian rhythms, this has other negative consequences, like making it seem like time is passing more quickly than it is.
Still, there is hope. We all get our sunshine eventually—and the fact that more and more people are going to experience Seasonal Affective Disorder because of Global Warming has already led to a rise in literacy of the term. Society’s collective awareness about what SAD is has gone up, so it’s easier to be proactive than ever. People talk about SAD on social media, television shows, news reports, and in tech news— and we’ve all heard people complain about the weather in what is supposed to be “spring.” Industry reporters have even suggested changing the lighting systems in office spaces to be more friendly towards mood, which is a kind of biophilia that truly represents a “New Hope.” We might be experiencing a new normal in terms of weather, but human consciousness and innovation are not far behind. This “new normal” spring is making us smarter; it’s making us more proactive; and it’s leading us to become more aware of ourselves and what we need to thrive and be happy— not just in terms of sunlight, but in Life itself. That is always a good thing.
So, be smart. Be proactive. Embrace “faux spring.” Put down your phone once in a while and walk barefoot when you get the chance. Limit the screens at night. Your brain will reward you. As for that pesky Seasonal Affective Disorder? It’s possible that you, too, might still experience grey days like the one I did near the Christmas tree farm as a kid, but that’s okay. No Hope invariably gives way to New Hope. Spring eventually comes, always.
In the meantime, you don’t exactly need to line your closet with tinfoil like Ilana on Broad City, but the well-timed use of a therapy light definitely helps. J
Molly Beauchemin is a writer, culture critic, and the Editor-in-Chief of Grace & Lightness Magazine, a critically-acclaimed mental wellness and lifestyle magazine that celebrates a better way to live. Grace & Lightness explores mental health and happiness through beautifully-curated travel experiences, carefully researched tips and discussions with wellness experts, bio-hacks for stress relief, cultural analysis, and ideas that encourage wonder, novelty, and awe. She lives with her husband in New York City.
Outside of Grace & Lightness, Molly has worked and written for some of the world’s leading media brands, from Condé Nast to National Geographic to MTV. Her work has always focused on exploring culture and creativity, which has taken her all over the world. Through these travels she continues to explore the universal reach of mental wellness, meaningful engagement, and what it means to live with purpose and passion in the digital age.