Another article that has been in my drafts, for a little while now, is this one; and I pondered over whether or not to share it. I’m more of a ‘stay in your lane’ kind of person and publicly discussing the topic of mental health has never really been in my interest. This is, after all, a gardening blog. However, the longer I have worked in the industry, the more I have realised how much Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is very much part of life for many gardeners. So, as it is World Mental Health Day, I wanted to show my solidarity with the cause and write about my own understanding & experience of SAD. At the bottom of this page you will find the recognised symptoms of the disorder (lifted from the NHS site) and shared links to useful online resources – in case you want to read up on the subject more.
A couple of years back, a family friend bought my dad a SAD light to help him kick the winter blues. Granted, he had a few more things going on beyond the low-sunlight hours, but it intrigued me none-the-less. I read up on it and was surprised at the link between my own seasonal behavioural patterns and those of the people around me. Labels and ‘diagnosing’ is something I take great issue with. Life, feelings and emotions are fluid and transient. They’re not a tick box exercise whereby everybody’s experience is the same. I understand that sometimes, people find a diagnosis useful; providing a sense of sanity that they’re not alone, or a framework for CBT, but it can be problematic for others – myself included. I can tap in to my own intuition and recognise when I’m not myself, I don’t need a label for that. For me, conversation and relation to other peoples experience, is much more important. Last year, Monty Don did a beautiful interview about his experience of SAD. Being so open with his own narrative allowed me to open up conversations with many different people around me, and I was surprised about how many people related to the disorder and its’ symptoms. My best friends mum is a trained horticultural therapist, and we often get to visit her in the summer when her garden is a riot of colour, texture and beauty. She is always so full of life and the perfect hostess. But I remember discussing the seasonal blues with her and she described exactly the patterns that I experience too! In fact, this went way beyond gardeners. It began to crop up in everyday conversation with friends. Apparently, around 6% of the UK population experience SAD, with a greater 10-20% reporting seasonal apathy & a milder version of the winter blues. Recognition of the symptoms is often more common in women and I will refrain from going on a ramble about women’s divine intuition here, but, yeah.
I think I may have made this statement before in a previous blog; but, in my (humble) opinion, I think all humans get a dose of this. If we think about the animal kingdom; for a vast majority of the winter, a fair few of these creatures are hibernating. They’ve spent the Autumn thanking gaia and harvesting supplies to keep them strong through the cold spell. Let’s focus on a specific ecosystem, for example: a temperate deciduous woodland. During the winter months, many birds migrate south to warmer climates where food sources are less scarce. Similarly, many smaller mammals are increasing their resting periods – with a few going into actual hibernation where they can reduce their metabolism to as little as 5%; slowing their need for food intake. For those who don’t fully hibernate, they’re often active by the sunlight – which, as we know, lessens through the winter months. Humans, however, reside in artificial cities with artificial lighting and arbitrary working days – meaning, there ain’t no rest for the wicked.
Back in February, I read an article on LinkedIn about the increase of suicides amongst people working in the horticultural and agricultural industries. By nature, these jobs can be very isolating. Don’t get me wrong, I love days where I can stick my headphones on and get lost in a podcast whist potting on seedlings. But, the camaraderie that comes from working in bigger teams or working in an office is often lacking at times. So it is really important to make sure you’re interacting with colleagues. Take notice of what’s happening in their life and talk to them about it, because it’s probably helping them as well as you. I also recently came across this funky guy on youtube, who essentially has these informal chats with the camera about various topics in the garden. One of his videos was titled Gardening Despondency Syndrome(GDS) – which intrigued me. What he described was that Autumn slump, when the garden has gone over a little and you feel a bit hopeless, wondering what to do with yourself. His videos are really great and relatable, so I have linked his account at the bottom of this blog too.
For me, personally, I have these seasonal waves; and I thought I might share my experience of the symptoms in case it helps somebody else recognise their own behavioural patterns. Initially, I was very confused by the concept of it. I thought, as a gardener outside all day, surely I would be less susceptible to SAD? Because, technically, I was getting all the hours of sunlight and much more vitamin D than ‘said equal’ working in an office. But none-the-less, those seasonal patterns are there. The first thing I acknowledge is the food uptake. I think this is quite natural because warm, hearty meals really do boost moral through the winter for everyone. But, particular cravings for me will be: bread, pasta, porridge, dumplings and any carby/stodgy food. The second thing I notice (which doesn’t always aline exactly with the Autumnal Equinox) is the change in season. There will be one day where I wake up, get ready for work, I’m in the garden and suddenly my brain goes “hmm, something is different”. It’s like a fog rolling in that you just can’t stop. The air feels traitor cold, and even if it’s a mild day, you just know.
Some people experience SAD in a truly heartbreaking way. They’re genuinely unable to get out of bed in the morning and feel so helpless & miserable that they just can’t face the day. In these cases, I definitely think it is important to seek further professional help as those light boxes just won’t do it. I’m grateful of a more gentle dose of winter blues. For me, I become overwhelmed – intensely and often. From October to around March, I will cry at pretty much anything. A sunrise, a sunset, a flower, a smile, a deer, a bird, a sound, a smell – honestly, anything. Which I guess, in its own way, is quite sweet. But unlike regular crying (which feels very cathartic) you don’t get that same release because it just happens again a few hours later – it’s exhausting and hopeless at times. Another thing is sleep. I’ve always been very precious about my sleep and I would go as far as saying as it is my number 1 priority in my daily routine. But during the winter, it becomes beyond priority! Napping, early nights and late rises, sleepy all day – I deffo feel that! And this general melancholy becomes a big part of daily life through the winter. I lean on people a lot during this time and I love my inner circle very dearly for their endless care.
I think the hardest part of SAD comes in February. I remember my first year at Brodsworth and one of my colleagues said to me before Christmas “make sure you save some annual leave for February”. So I did, but I totally forgot about his comment until February came around and I was in genuine despair. Brodsworth was always fab for having the winter restoration projects, which gave us gardeners something to focus on and bond over. But that last spike of winter, in February, is really tough. You get the odd day where the sun shines and you understand the promise that spring is coming. Then comes a week of hard rain and wind. And you find yourself stood in your waterproofs and soggy boots, knee deep in mud, getting gravel stuck to you as you walk, thinking “I need my mum”.
But it does pass. And those soul piercing fragrances of Daphne odora and Ribes sanguineum shine right to the core. Like a golden beam of sunlight warming up my heart. Then comes the blossom, and the birds, and the little shoots of green. Fields of purple and yellow, flooded with crocus and daffys, bouncing their heads in the dappling rays. Iris reticulata peeping its’ blooms through the late snow and hedgerows bursting to life. Spring: my favourite season of them all! I’ve always loved the quote that ‘like the moon, we must go through phases of emptiness to feel full again’. Cycles are part of life; and these changes in nature are so important. There is a higher algorithm that unfolds and adapts every single day that we breathe. As we turn to the darker side of the sun, winter is a good time to work on your own shadow (if you’re feeling strong enough), returning with Persephone in the Spring. Be kind to yourself, it’s the only thing that matters.
“And we are all connected to each other. In a circle, in a hoop that never ends” – Pocahontas
NHS Website: Symptoms of SAD
Symptoms of SAD can include:
- a persistent low mood
- a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
- feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
- feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day
- sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
- craving carbohydrates and gaining weight