Seasonal Affective Disorder – Experiencing it as a Traveler is Rough

Posted By Jeremy in North America | 3 comments


Low Light in the ArcticIf you are a fan of our blog’s Facebook page, you likely are well aware that I have been going up to Northern Canada for my day job several times this year.  My latest trip in particular had some interesting experiences associated with it as the time of year was quickly reaching the winter solstice.  The occasional -30°C (-22°F) temperature was not enough to make me terribly upset, and missing the northern lights is something I am still considering booking a future trip for.  But it was another location based experience that really threw my whole life upside down over the duration of the trip.  As it turns out, there is a real disorder associated with the feelings I was having while up so far north and it is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or S.A.D.  (Photo “Ice Breaker at Work” by SailorJohn)

What is S.A.D. and How Did I Feel It?

The weird thing about being so far North in the winter is not the mind numbingly low temperatures, but rather the proximity of the sun to the horizon.  While I’ve never been far enough North to experience 24 hours of darkness, my location was far enough that the sun never made it but a few degrees off the horizon.

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What does that mean for the everyday person?  Well, 6 hours of sunlight is one thing, but it is when that period feels like 5 o’clock every minute of the day that will really get you.  Think about it for a few moments.  Whenever the sun is up, it feels like the day is about to be over.  The sun never appears to rise or set, it just moves a few horizontally across the sky casting a 5 o’clock shadow over everything.

But it’s not over.  It drags on.

Low Light in the Arctic

As the minutes tick by, the sun barely moves up or down and your long shadow sticks with you for the whole time the sun is up.  You go work for an hour, walk outside and thing “hooray, its 5! The day is almost over” but then check your watch and realize it is only 11 am.  Cue depression; and for those who experience this for long periods of time, Seasonal Affective Disorder. (Photo “Mount Terror” by SailorJohn)

The winter blues are not just isolated to the communities in the northern most regions of the world.  People in all locations of the world have experienced S.A.D. due to the change in sun’s position and weather over the course of a winter.  You may be thinking that it doesn’t sound that bad, and that is the weird thing about it – it really is.  There is something about the sun hanging low, the days being short, and the temperatures being colder that just makes you feel down, and when drawn out over a day that seems never ending, I can easily see how people have become very upset by it after a few months.  In fact, the only thing I was thinking of for most of the time I was up there was buying a plane ticket to get out as soon as possible (even though I already had one and am thankfully long gone).

Cures for S.A.D

It may sound silly, but light therapy is considered to be one of the most useful treatment options for those experiencing S.A.D.  It is not a direct science yet, but it is relatively accepted among researchers that light therapy can directly influence melatonin production in the body.  When melatonin is high, you feel sluggish, sleepy, and generally down.  This typically occurs in the evening hours when the sun is down and, you guessed it, in winter and locations where the sun is not as vibrant.  When your body’s melatonin level is low, as is such when the sun is up, you have more energy and are ready for the day.  In extreme conditions where daily light is minimal at best, melatonin is not as suppressed as in more moderate latitudes.  The result is a lot of tired individuals, and the condition known as S.A.D.

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The key to light therapy is not using any ordinary light, but a lightbox that emits more lumens than ordinary bulbs.  After 30 minutes or so of sitting near a light box, your melatonin levels decrease and you are ready to be out for a day in the semi-light conditions that are otherwise too low to suppress it.

But why light therapy?  

Well, the glands that trigger production of the sleep inducing melatonin and other hormones that keep us awake during the day are triggered by a number of locations, one being the receptors in the eye.  When there is no light, there are no triggers and a sluggish day (or months) results for many people around the world.  When the light returns, you’ll feel energized almost immediately.  But before you go rushing to stare at a light bulb to try and get an energy boost, take this one note – we are not doctors, and if you think you are experiencing S.A.D. you should speak with your doctor on the correct way to try light therapy or another form of energy assistance to get you through the long winter.

Or if light therapy is not for you, try our favorite solution; book a vacation to the beach and get the heck out of there as fast as possible.  Suffice it to say, we may be re-evaluating our dream of moving to Norway one day based on this one, and I definitely wont be returning to Banff National Park in the winter.  It is just too close for comfort.

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Jeremy

Jeremy founded Living the Dream in 2008 to chronicle his long-term trip around Asia. Since then he has been on two long-term trips, visited 68 countries, and is just getting started. He is now on a Lifestyle Design quest to build businesses to pursue a life of travel.

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3 Comments

  1. Absolutely True! We live in Ontario, but it’s strange- as soon as we begin to thaw out every year I find myself trying to get as much sunlight as possible and feeling SO much better. So often you don’t even realize it’s happening- until you feel great when it warms up!

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  2. I should have bought Vitamin D before going, but I definitely recommend it for anyone who may experience those conditions!

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  3. My friend who studied in Sweden for two years told me about her tiredness during the winter time but I didn’t know that it was called Seasonal Affective Disorder. She was sleeping more and more, and when she got to 14-16 hours of sleep per day she decided to ask about it. The Swedes told her that she needs to take, like everyone else, Vitamin D. It worked very well for her:)

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