Monsoon Depression is More Than that Rainy Day Feeling
By Sonali Gupta
Each year, when the rains come, a Kahlil Gibran quote is a reminder of how seasonal changes have the power to control how we feel and, in turn, act: “For the sight of the angry weather saddens my soul and the sight of the town, sitting like a bereaved mother beneath layers of ice, oppresses my heart.” The world of art and literature is filled with such metaphors, but they aren’t mere literary whimsy; Dr. Norman Rosenthal, first studied this state of mind in 1984, giving it the name Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD); you may know it by the more colloquial name, monsoon depression.
An intro to seasonal affective disorder
Dr. Rosenthal, a renowned author and psychiatrist, noted how the absence of adequate sunlight during winter or the monsoon, or for those living in dark places, can trigger a vulnerability. Later, seasonal affective disorder came to be recognized as Depressive Disorder with a seasonal pattern—not a unique disorder by itself, but a sub-set of the more generic depressive condition. This newer designation means symptoms of monsoon depression start with a specific season – any season – and end with the transition to another. But winter blues are more common than summer depression.
Kelly Rohan, a SAD expert at the University of Vermont, describes seasonal affective disorder symptoms as the same for nonseasonal depression: low energy levels, fatigue, overeating, lack of pleasure in otherwise enjoyable activities, irritability, lethargy and social withdrawal.
In my experience with Indian clients posted in European countries, signs of winter blues were not uncommon. I remember one woman, posted in Copenhagen, who wrote to me saying, “I feel trapped with the weather conditions and find it very debilitating. I so wish I could see a ray of sunlight.”
Monsoon depression: same thing, different climate
Winter isn’t the only catalyst. In my 11 years of clinical experience in Mumbai, I have listened to many clients speak about monsoon depression, describing how the rains impact their moods negatively. The continuous downpour, dark grey skies, and lightning naturally create a feeling of melancholy. This, coupled with the breakdown of public transport and infrastructure, which keeps us stuck at home, exacerbates low moods.
Some clients seek seasonal depression treatment during the months of June and July to cope with increased lethargy, mood swings, tiredness, bouts of overeating and excessive sleep. Some also feel an increased desire to eat fried foods or foods high in carbohydrates or sugar, filling themselves with treats to distract from their monsoon depression. What is significant is that these low moods start with the onset of monsoon and generally remit as soon as the rains stop. It’s a temporary condition that can have long-term affects if people begin to dread and panic at the onset of the monsoon, thus trigger more periods of sadness.
Dr. Norman Rosenthal, in his book, Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder, describes lack of exposure to light as a primary cause of SAD; other factors, such as biological predisposition, gender and stress, are factors that increase the risk. And both research and clinical experience show that women are more likely than men to develop seasonal affective disorder symptoms.
Seasonal depression causes
Monsoon depression — indeed, any seasonal affective disorder — is a physiological response to lack of sunlight. Limited UV exposure affects the production of melatonin, serotonin and Vitamin D, three integral influencers of our mood: Melatonin levels increase, triggering lethargy and drowsiness; meanwhile, our levels of seratonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood and appetite, take a nosedive. And of course, less sunlight means low levels of Vitamin D, which is also linked to depression. Finally, our circadian rhythm, the 24-hour clock of our bodies, gets disrupted during extreme winters or when there is no sunlight for days at end.
Seasonal depression treatment
Seasonal depression treatment requires a good mix of exposure to Light Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), though some clients also require medication. For monsoon blues, based on the intensity of the mood fluctuations, either CBT alone or CBT with medication prescribed by a psychiatrist may be the best line of treatment. CBT aims to help seasonal affective disorder sufferers become aware of how the weather affects their mood and reclaim control. As a client struggling with monsoon depression once said: “I have consciously become aware of how the rains can play havoc with my mood. In therapy, I have learnt to break out of a pattern of rumination, develop a structured schedule, and dispute negative thoughts.”
Maintaining a regular exercise regime, developing a pattern of healthy eating, learning to be meaningfully engaged and choosing to develop social support also aids in the process of recovery.
For some of us, the monsoon has the power to heal old wounds and bring us and the Earth to life. For people suffering from monsoon depression, the rains must be endured with a constant reminder that they are short lived.