When I spent a year living in Munich, I discovered something about myself that I hadn’t previously been aware of. I left a cool and cloudy Sydney to arrive towards the end of what had been a sweltering German summer. I couldn’t believe that I was out there sweating through 30-degree days as I settled in, attending class in shorts and singlets and eating gelato by the lake after Uni, while my friends in Australia were still rugging up for tops of 8 degrees. It just seemed so backwards to me that it could be warmer and sunnier in Germany?
In Summer, the sun didn’t set in Munich until 9:30pm. My friends and I would hang out in the evenings on my balcony drinking Radler and eating fresh berries, before putting on our ridiculous dirndls around 10pm to head out for the Oktoberfest (which, for complicated reasons is actually held in late September).
Weekends were spent soaking up the sun in pretty Biergartens with Weissbier and pretzels, or bike-riding through lush green parks and cycleways. All the thick winter jackets and sweaters I had packed were hung up untouched, taking up most of my very limited wardrobe space, while I dressed in as little material as possible in an attempt to stay cool throughout the long, sweltering days.
But alas, like all good things, Summer had to come to an end. As we approached the end of the year and the Christmas season, temperatures began to drop, Biergartens closed for the Winter, and the sun pretty much stopped making an appearance. Every day was grey and dreary. Even in the middle of the day, it felt dark outside, like the clouds were a heavy blanket pushing down on the whole city and sucking the life out of me. I felt like I had no energy. I stopped wanting to go out. I missed my home and my friends back in Australia. I was too tired to go shopping, cook, clean or eat out. Without any sun, my normally olive skin turned transparent white and I developed dark circles under my eyes. I spent days at a time alone in my tiny house, watching Netflix shows and Ted Talks in between long naps and working on assignments.
I felt like a failure, I was on exchange in another country! I was meant to be having the time of my life, staying out every night and enjoying every minute, but instead I felt like I was trapped in this weird zombie state. I thought maybe that I was just lonely, but when I went to visit my family in England over Christmas, that heavy feeling didn’t go away. In fact, I felt so relieved when I was finally back in my tiny upstairs room back in Munich, where I could be alone to mope around in my own space. Although I found it pretty cool to see snow falling outside my window, and would sometimes take walks through the frozen park near my house, I still spent most of my time inside, alone, shutting myself off from the rest of the world.
I wondered if this feeling would go away. Was I just homesick or was something very, very wrong with me?
As you do, I turned to Dr. Google and discovered something called Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD for short. Basically, it’s just like normal depression, but symptoms only start to show up during the winter months and then go into “remission’ during the rest of the year.
Although the specific biological causes of SAD are still unknown, it’s believed that for some people, a lack of exposure to light can affect our melanin and serotonin levels, which in turn disrupts our sleep cycle and ability to regulate mood. Apparently, severe cases of SAD which need to be treated with medication or therapy are rare, affecting only about 1 in 300 people.
Fortunately, I wouldn’t put myself in that category. But surely, if some people can be so significantly affected by “winter blues” that is crosses over into full-blown clinical depression, there must be some people who experience the phenomenon on a smaller scale. The weird thing is that I had never noticed the cold weather and grey days having as much of an impact on my mood before I was exposed to weeks and months of it on end.
Since coming back home, I’ve definitely been more aware of how significantly the weather outside affects my state of mind. I think that’s it’s been super helpful for me to be able to “rationalise” the way I feel as a normal biological response rather than blaming my situation, work and Uni stress or family and friends for my sour mood. It’s also been helpful in finding ways to perk myself up and get out of the rut. Rather than isolating myself and wondering what’s wrong with me, I know that I can:
- Do some exercise
- Text a friend
- Go outside and get some light
- Make a To-Do List and smash out simple tasks
- Delete social media apps off my phone for a set period
- Put the sugary snacks down and prepare a healthy meal instead
If all else fails, it’s comforting to know that the sun will come out again, and with it, bring back my normally positive mood. I still find it much more difficult to get out of bed when there’s no sunlight filtering through my blinds in the morning, and my productivity always takes a hit since all I want to do is curl up into a ball and go into hibernation. However, feeling down and lethargic when the sun doesn’t come out is just another thing that I’ve learned to accept about myself. (Also, that I’ll always have to live in a sunny country… Anyone keen to move to Fiji with me?)
I’d love to know if anyone else out there feels the same around winter time! Comment below or send me a private message if you can relate to sometimes feeling a bit SAD.
Disclaimer: As always, whenever I write something, I do it in the hope that someone, somewhere will relate to my experiences and feel just that little bit less alone. I recognise that my mental health journey so far has been smooth sailing compared to so many who struggle with severe depression and anxiety, day in-day out, regardless of whether the sun is shining outside or not. When I share some things that work for me, I am by no means suggesting that everyone’s mental health battles can be ‘solved’ with a bit of diet, exercise and mindfulness. If you, or someone you know needs help, please reach out to:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36
- Headspace on 1800 650 890