There are real reasons to feel sad in the winter: Not all of them have to do with the weather
A recent article in The Atlantic “The Surprising Truth About Seasonal Depression” explores the reality of seasonal affective disorder (otherwise known as SAD) and whether winter weather and waning light actually impact people’s propensity for depression. What the article misses, however, is the real issue: how much we look outside of ourselves for explanations for how we feel. There are very real reasons why we may feel sad in the winter. Yet, our bias towards understanding depression as an interaction between biology and the environment leaves out an important piece: our history.
We can get stuck legitimizing our emotional experiences through biology
Often when people read articles like “The Surprising Truth About Seasonal Depression,” which cites studies that find little to no correlation between depression and the seasons, they feel dismissed. It’s as if their lived experiences are being negated. They really do feel depressed in the winter. Every winter. So, what is happening if that’s not seasonal affective disorder?
Our need to legitimate emotional experiences through biology and categorization reminds me of a longstanding argument about the tomato. A tomato is only a fruit in the biological sense. A reasonable argument can be made that a tomato is, in fact, a vegetable, both culinarily and culturally. Grocery stores and gardens are laid out in this way. There was even a landmark Supreme Court case that decided for purposes of interstate commerce, the tomato is legally a vegetable. So when we declare with conviction that a tomato is a fruit, we are insisting that the rule of categorization (here botanical) is the real rule—the one that’s more important than other senses.
We can get even more stuck doing this with our own bodies and medicine. We tend to understand a set of emotional experiences, perhaps ones that follow a particular pattern like a seasonal pattern, as being validated biologically. Of course, it is understandable that we want these experiences to be seen as valid.
Depression comes from somewhere, including our histories
I’d argue for a shift in the understanding of seasonal depression that does the opposite of invalidating this experience. Depression comes from somewhere. Calling it seasonal affective disorder and insisting that the emotional experience is merely biological denies that. Instead, we need to locate lived experience as central—that someone does feel depressed in the winter—but include within this understanding the fullness of its history.
For instance, maybe her mother died in the winter. Or he used to find great joy in skiing before the accident. The grey days might remind them of the winter when they were 12 and everything went wrong. Can we imagine these experiences being formative and impacting how these people feel in the winter without insisting that it can only be real if it is grounded in biology?
Considering the history of emotional experiences like seasonal depression might address their deeper causes
How does only seeing seasonal affective disorder as biological limit our possibilities for getting better? In its simplest terms, believing we are at the whim of biology (and the weather) limits ways of helping to those that only address biology such as psychotropic medications, light therapy (which The Atlantic suggests has limited efficacy), and interventions that address symptoms, including lifestyle changes and cognitive-behavioral therapy.
In other words, the very framing of the problem as the intersection of biology and seasonal conditions already rules out the possibility of historical work, which might address deeper causes of these affective experiences. It also forecloses the possibility of making more fundamental changes. This includes the potential for not just “managing” a disorder better, but rather working through it and past it.