Brendan O'Connor had a lot of questions for Maureen Gaffney. Are we more prone to low mood in January? Are Irish people prone to flatness? Should we all try to be more optimistic? Is Seasonal Affective Disorder really a thing? Fortunately, the renowned clinical psychologist had plenty of answers for Brendan. (That is how interviews work, after all and – spoiler alert – the answers were all "Yes").
"For a lot of Irish people, the real winter starts in January. You know, it’s a very long month. And I think the issue – there's an awful lot of research actually on this – and the issue seems to be light."
The way we’ve evolved, Maureen says, has traditionally meant that light wakes us up in the morning and darkness tells us it’s time for bed at night-time. This tended to mean that we felt more alert in the morning and as the light faded in the evening, we started to get tired. Artificial light has changed the game for the past 100 years or so, but the seasonality of natural light remains a constant.
"For most people, the effect on your mood is just that kind of feeling of lethargy that you don’t have when you wake up on a summer morning – you kind of feel like the day is ahead of you and, you know, you can get stuff done. In the winter, a lot of the time – well, here anyway – in the deep winter, you’re getting up in the dark and you’re coming home from work in the dark, so I think that feeling of that it’s all going to be much harder is much stronger in the winter."
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) may affect between 10 and 20% of Irish people, a figure that seems shockingly high, but it’s backed up by research.
"It’s a continuum. There are some people at one extreme who hardly notice the seasons changing, you know, and there are some people who have actually quite an extreme reaction to it and there’s everything in between."
People suffering from SAD have a very strong reaction to the change of seasons. It’s an extreme version of the kind of reaction that a lot of us have to shorter days:
"There’s more lethargy. You’re kind of biologically more lethargic, you kind of feel you’re carrying a big weight around, you know? You feel low. You find it hard to lighten up."
Are people who suffer from SAD the sort of people who tend to depression anyway, Brendan wants to know, or is it the case that some people can be perfectly fine for most of the year and then suffer when the winter kicks in? Turns out there’s a bit of a controversy about that:
"There’s a school of thought that SAD is a particular disorder that some people are susceptible to. They’re grand once the summer comes, you know? And they don’t have other long-term difficulties in their lives. But there are some people who are very affected. It’s almost like a version, really, of depression."
This manifests itself in what Maureen describes as a brain fog – a sense of heaviness, combined with low mood and a kind of cognitive slow down. It’s a condition that can be quite debilitating. And women are more susceptible to SAD:
"It might be because women report more than men do. In other words, they’re prepared to admit, you know. Women will talk about their feelings at the drop of a hat, so, in terms of most mental disorders, or, you know, sort of emotional issues, they are ready-er to admit it."
Of course, this has been true traditionally about women and men when it comes to medical issues and potential mental health difficulties are no exception. Awareness, though, is a vital part of the process of dealing with SAD. And when there’s awareness, there are relatively easy steps that can be taken to help alleviate symptoms:
"If you find that you dread the winter. If you describe yourself as 'oh, not a winter person, I can’t do winter,’ you know, then the first thing you need to do is ensure that you’re getting as much light as possible, since that’s the fundamental cause of it."
Morning light seems to be very important, Maureen says, so a morning walk could be a vital step in coping with SAD. The walking, the fresh air and, crucially, the light will help to elevate a person's mood during the darkest months. Being able to see nature can be quite the pick-me-up for the brain at most times, but especially during winter. And if January is getting you down, as Maureen says, at this point it is, at least, more than halfway over.
You can hear Brendan’s full conversation with Maureen by going here.