Around this time of year (mid-January), most people - including me - are sick of winter. We're sick of the short days, the lack of sunshine, the cold temperatures, and being forced indoors because of the horrible weather. Quite simply, winter gets old - fast.
In recent years doctors have perceived a pattern in these seasonally-related feelings and have classified them as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The Mayo Clinic defines SAD as "a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons," beginning and ending at about the same times of the year. Symptoms include a loss of energy and moodiness.
The Mayo Clinic website encourages those who suffer from SAD to not "brush off that yearly feeling as simply a case of the 'winter blues' or a seasonal funk that you have to tough out on your own. Take steps to keep your mood and motivation steady throughout the year." Mayo recommends that SAD sufferers keep their moods and motivation steady throughout the year through light therapy, psychotherapy, and/or medications.
I have talked to many people, either at my church or even in my own family, who have either been self-diagnosed or diagnosed by a medical professional with this disorder. I, myself, have often felt less energetic in winter, and I seem to have a shorter temper - probably from being cooped up inside 23 hours per day. Does that mean I have SAD? Before a Christian diagnoses himself or herself with SAD, I think it is very important to take into consideration two observations and three biblical truths.
Two Observations on Seasonal Affective Disorder
It is important to note that SAD is not scientifically observable or testable. It cannot be definitively defined or classified. It is based largely on how a person feels, and therefore is different from person to person. For this reason, we should be careful to define our feelings with a supposed disorder. It would not be accurate or healthy to align our feelings with a supposed disorder if they are actually naturally occurring and common. Sometimes we feel certain ways because we just do, not because we are suffering from a disorder.
For this reason I would caution those who suffer from feelings associated with SAD to be very slow to treat their feelings with medicine. It would seem to be to be unwise at best to use medicine to treat a disorder that is neither observable or testable. Even if medication seems to help, there can be no evidence that it is having more effect on the condition than a placebo would, because again, it is not testable. At worst, you could be putting chemicals in your body for no purpose, achieving no result.
Thee Biblical Truths for SAD Sufferers to Remember
Where do our feelings come from? When the weather changes and the days get shorter, where do our feelings of lacking energy and moodiness and short-temperedness come from? Is it possible that they come from SAD? Yes. It is also possible, however, that our negative feelings come from a lack of realization of God's sovereignty over the universe and over the seasons, and that he is working out his purposes in the seasons - even the dead of winter. In other words, these negative feelings can come from a sinful forgetfulness of the truth of God's sovereign plan and purpose in the world. If this is the case, Christians who believe they are suffering from SAD should treat their negative feelings with faith in three truths:
1. God has a purpose in winter. Winter is not a curse. It is a part of the good way that God has designed the world to function. In fact, there are several beneficial things that happen through the freezing and thawing of the land and vegetation (Isaiah 55.10). For instance, in winter, the land has a forced rest from being cultivated, giving soil time to regenerate its nutrients and moisture to be ready for the next planting season so that we can have food to eat. The ground recuperates its moisture content through the melting of the snow. Vegetation dies and regenerates, bringing about its seeds and spreading them across the land in order to reproduce. God has designed winter to be exactly the way that it is, for his good purposes (Psalm 147.16). If winter brings you down, remember that God is working in it and through it, and that it is actually a sign of his mercy and care for the earth and the people on it (Job 38.22). Knowing that your Lord is at work - even in the bleakest days of the year - should help you reframe how you think about those short days and cold nights.
2. Winter is evidence of God's unchanging nature. The changing seasons are one of the clearest natural sources of evidence that we have to prove the truth that God never changes. Each year the seasons come and go in exactly the same way. Summer is hot, autumn cools the earth, winter is cold, and spring brings back the warmth. The leaves always fall in the autumn. Winter brings the cold and snow. And the seasons always come in the exact same order - never changing, always exactly the same. We can look at the changing of the seasons and remember that God never changes (Malachi 3.6). He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Rather than thinking negative thoughts, allow the changing of the seasons to remind you of this glorious truth.
3. Winter will end. The Christian life can often be characterized by a time of waiting. We exist in this broken world, in broken bodies, longing for the time when the earth and our bodies will be remade (Romans 8.19-23). We are waiting for the "winter" of our sinful, painful existence to come to an end, and for the glorious "spring" of the resurrection. We comfort ourselves during this time of living in sinful bodies in a sinful world with the reality that the resurrection is coming - the day is coming when Christ will return and create a new heavens and new earth, in which there will be no pain, sickness, death, or tears. In other words, we have hope for a new beginning. This hope and period of waiting defines the Christian life. Christians are waiters. This reality should help us get through the few months of bummer-weather that we have to go through each year. Remember that there is a season for everything, and all things come to an end (Ecclesiastes 3.1).
Like all things, we can and should treat Seasonal Affective Disorder with the truth of God's word: we have an unchanging, sovereign Lord who is working out his purpose in the world and in our lives. Are you guaranteed to have a happy winter? Will the negative feelings come to an immediate end? Not necessarily, but this reality gives us hope.