Until I arrived in Europe, I had never really heard of people admitting that the change in seasons or weather can have a long-lasting and a very poignant effect on their moods and energy for significant durations of time. Back in India, I did appreciate the sudden cold rain showers in the middle of a hot week in Haryana every now and then but that’s pretty much where it ended. It made us happy for a while, we would go out, get some Samosas packed for home, wait for our father to join us in the evening and enjoy the cool temperature with those pockets of delight and our mother’s signature chai.
But the whole equation just completely changed here in Germany for me last Winter. It was the first time I was facing the full change of seasons in Germany, going from proper summer to winter and then back, so, a good percentage of the people in northern Europe who suffer from Winter Depression every year. When I think of it now, we got our second cat, Nila around late October, when it had started to get dark again and this might have been because of the winter blues. The feeling of having a new member in the family, having responsibility to take care of it might have made us take that decision, but if you still don’t understand what exactly am I talking about, let me try my best to make you understand what it is.
What is a Winter depression?
Every year in winter, up to 30 percent of northern Europeans suffer from a seasonal mood low, the winter depression. In technical jargon, it is also referred to seasonal affective disorder or SAD. It is typical that this depressive phase occurs repeatedly in autumn and winter every year and lasts for about 90 days. As soon as the summer starts again, all of the symptoms are gone once again!
The people whom this kind of depression affects the most is the ones who are already suffering from some kind of general depression. Where the general symptoms of depression are sleeplessness and poor appetite, for winter depression, these signs are reversed. Winter depression is characterized by an extreme need for sleep, an inexplicable sadness and cravings for sweets and carbohydrates that leads to weight gain. Other indicators of winter depression are a desire of doing nothing, irritability, neglecting one’s own friends and social contacts.
Why do people from many countries never go through it?
It is true that most of you might be completely unaware of a situation like this if you are living in any of the countries which belong in the yellow region. The map is based on a study did by Ulrich Kraft in the journal Scientific American Mind. The people who are living in the yellow region never go through phases of winter depression, whereas the ones who are living in the brown region are highly likely to face it during their lifetimes. The chances of suffering through winter depression rise from 1% at the border of the yellow and brown region to up to 10% towards the poles. So, the chances are, if you are a reader anywhere from India, Brazil, Venezuela, northern Australia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Venezuela, Sri Lanka or Indonesia, you might not be able to relate much to this article.
What is the difference between Winter Depression and Winter Blues?
Colloquially, the term winter depression is used for the entire spectrum of winter moods. In fact, most people only suffer from a so-called winter blues, a mild form of winter depression. Even during winter blues, there is an increased need for sleep, the desire of doing nothing and depressed mood. The effects of winter blues are more moderate and the people who are affected by real winter depression comes down to just 2 to 8% of the entire north european population.
What causes Winter Depression?
Although most of us never faced anything like this in India because of just way too much sunlight, but in Germany things change entirely. The cause of winter depression is the lack of daylight and sun, which prevails in the northern hemisphere in winter. When daylight falls into the eye, it activates a signaling pathway that breaks down the sleep hormone melatonin in the brain and releases serotonin, an activating hormone. When the amount of light in the winter decreases, these people experience a disruption of the hormonal balance. The body no longer degrades the sleep hormone melatonin in sufficient quantities, it accumulates and leads to tiredness and loss of motivation to do anything. Depending on how pronounced the insensitivity to daylight of the affected person is, the symptoms can vary greatly. Let me just paint a picture for you on how the sunset and sunrise differs in Germany when compared to India (in the Scandinavian countries, this is even worse!)
- Sunrise in India: 05:30 hours
- Sunset in India: 20:00 hours
- Sunrise in Germany: 03:45 hours
- Sunset in Germany: 23:30 hours
- Sunrise in India: 07:30 hours
- Sunset in India: 18:00 hours
- Sunrise in Germany: 08:45 hours
- Sunset in Germany: 16:00 hours
So, in other words, wherein summers, India experiences a daylight of around 14:30 hours, Germany experiences a daylight of easily around 19:45 hours. Summers are great in Europe! I would be in no other place on the planet than being in Germany in the summers. Going out in the evening, feeling motivated to do all kinds of things throughout the day and the feeling of having almost more than 24 hours every day is a giant boost in the productivity, but unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Winters. When winters start the daylight reduces in both the regions but the decrease in northern Europe is just insanely worse than what you experience in India. Where India still receives a daylight of around 10 hours and 30 minutes in winters, Germany just receives a daylight of around 7 hours and 15 minutes. This means that 70% of the entire day or the remaining 16 hours and 45 minutes is just pure and complete darkness. The daylight drops from almost 20 hours in summer to 7 hours in winter in Germany, whereas in India it just drops from 14 hours to 10 hours. So, you can see very easily how the change of daylight in India is negligible when you compare it with Germany and hence, the effects of changes in the season is so strong here.
I remember going to the university when it was dark and coming back home when it became dark again. Going to work when it was dark and coming back when it was dark. Doesn’t matter if the lecture is at 08:00 in the morning or 09:30, you would still be making your commute in total darkness and all of these things throw you out of your natural body rhythm and doesn’t give you a proper feeling of day and night which results in the winter depression. The people who still might be taking it lightly will realize it’s real effects once they are here because the change in the duration of sunlight affects every living organism on the planet. The extent of that effect is different for different beings though.
What can be done against winter depression?
The best remedy for the wintry low is daylight. In milder forms, a daily walk in the fresh air can help. Even when the sun is no longer in the sky, the light radiation during the overcast outside is much higher than in the house. In addition, you get some movement which also stimulates the metabolism.
Regular exercise can also help with winter depression. Even simple things like turmeric and cumin can help. A little jogging is usually not enough here, but a good work-out is recommended, where you go out to the gym and sweat at least three times a week for at least half an hour. Studies have shown that intense exercise stimulates serotonin production and counteracts winter blues.
It is also important to eat healthy. Because in winter the desire for sweets is so high, you should also make sure to take enough vitamins.
Those suffering from severe winter depression should contact their doctor. Your public health insurance will cover all of your doctor visits and most of the therapies, if the doctors advise you some. In addition to exercise and nutrition, those affected can use a daylight lamp, which is used for 30 to 60 minutes in the morning and in the evening. It is important to turn to the light and whatever activity that you are doing, be it reading a book or working on your computer, your face should be towards the lamp. The light from the lamp should finally activate the light cells of the eyes. In more severe cases, the doctors even sometimes prescribe temporary anti-depressants. Now, rather than chugging those pills in your system, it’s way better to just go out and have a solid work out in the gym to keep yourself aware of the reality.
For the newcomers:
Now, if you have just arrived in Germany and you are feeling a bit gloomy, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with you moving to a different country leaving all of your friends and family behind, it might even just be a Seasonal low which is extremely real in Germany. The best way to avoid or overcome any kind of depression is to take responsibility: responsibility to help yourself, responsibility to help others (primarily the reason of my YouTube channel, this website and Facebook groups), responsibility towards your pets(our cats) or even responsibility to do better in your studies: just about anything which gives you the strong feeling of accomplishment that you are actually making this world a better place by taking care of some of its problems.
If there is still something that’s disturbing you and you would like to share it with a community of highly motivated and helpful people, you can always head over to our Facebook group and we will try our best to help you out in whatever way we can. If things get more serious, don’t hesitate at all to visit the appointed pshychologist of your university (every German university has one and you don’t have to pay anything at all!), but do take care of our state of mind and energy and if you realize that something isn’t right, take measures to do any of the things that I have discussed above to actively avoid it or prevent it because these low energy phases can put you in a state of decreased productivity which means you aren’t getting the most out of yourself which is the last thing any motivated or ambitious person should expect from himself.