It is becoming increasingly well-known in the mental health community that the impact of sunlight can play a huge role in the lives of people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The NHS reports that 1 in 15 people are affected by SAD. This is because reduced exposure to sunlight during autumn and winter can lead to lower serotonin levels which is linked to feelings of depression. But did you know that sunlight can also exacerbate the symptoms of anxiety? This is said to be due to the effect of heat and sunlight causing sweating, palpitations, shaking, shortness of breath, feeling faint which are symptomatic of anxiety.
Statistics and research aside, I experience these symptoms of anxiety whenever I’m faced with sunny weather. Though these physiological symptoms are present, my anxiety is triggered for a completely different reason, though not at all unrelated to the impact of sunlight.
As a child, though shy and geeky, I was often hyperactive and constantly ‘on the go.’ And if the situation (or subject) didn’t inspire action or interest on my part, I would simply go – leave the classroom and go wandering the school building to satiate my curiosity and love for adventure and movement. I think, in large part, this was as a result of the abundance of adventures I experienced during a prior lengthy holiday in Bangladesh where every day was filled with novelty, traveling and fun. Before this holiday, my days in London brought nothing but a series of listless monotony that I now only recall in dull sepia-toned flashbacks. My childhood was wanting in vibrance and colour… and Bangladesh presented this to me in a gift-wrapped, rainbow striped package.
Returning to London, I knew that adventure was at my fingertips. It only required that I seize the day, that I persevere in my dogged pursuit for adventure. And I did.
Life under the roof of my childhood home wasn’t always pleasant, but no amount of pain and trauma deterred me. Likewise, no amount of teasing, isolation and bullying at school would lead me to back down in my pursuit of an action-packed life. And why should it have? For every problem, there were always ten more solutions and I was determined to try out each one – what’s life without a little social experimentation? I tried almost every method under the sun to overcome those obstacles and finally understood that only one worked… but that’s a story for another day.
You must be wondering what has all this got to do with anxiety? If there’s anything I learned from CBT is that to tackle the areas of our life which impact our mental health, we need to understand our triggers and get to the heart of the matter. Sometimes the answer lies in the foundations that we’ve built.
“The entire tree is contained in the seed, but equally true is that the entire forest is contained in the seed.” – Daniel, ChooseYourMetaphor
I fear monotony. I fear routine. I fear a life that is boring and uninteresting. I fear doing nothing. These fears are my triggers. My first panic attack was a result of this. By age ten I had accumulated a plethora of sources of fun. I had several friends in the neighbourhood and cousins from other parts of London who I played almost every sport and PlayStation game under the sun with, enacted dramatic performances from plays I had found in the library, dances – and eventually hosted parties in secondary school, spooky games and then some. I had friends at Islamic school, though there weren’t many opportunities to play games, I had my fellow classmates to talk to. I didn’t make an actual friend in school until Year Six, but it never stopped me from joining in to play football, hopscotch, cops and robbers, tag and the other many games that are pivotal to a 90’s childhood. In short, I wasn’t short of fun.
But it made me an experience junkie, and this brings me to my first ever panic attack.
At age ten, during the stifling heat of the summer holidays, I woke up ready to play sports or invent games or plan a prank on either one of the two girls in my neighbourhood that my best friend and I hated. But my best friend was nowhere to be found and nor was my brother, my cousins were far away at their own houses, and not a single one of my neighbourhood friends were home. Not a single friend was available.
The day was too beautiful to stay inside and read a book (I detested reading during daylight hours) or play PlayStation when the bright orange glare would prove too distracting. I had nothing to do. I was stuck home without a single play-mate. I was Scarlett O’Hara standing behind the stall, a witness to the frolicking and romping of young and single belles, a witness to the denial of her own fun because of her widow status. I could barely breathe, I was sweating, heart beating fast, I stood rock still, gripping the underbelly of my bed to steady me as the sunlight stood watching, mocking. I was having my first panic attack and I didn’t even realise it.
I don’t even remember what happened afterwards. Whenever anything shocking happens to me, the aftermath becomes a drunken blur.
Time spent at CBT sessions made me self-reflect. In the year of 2016, I frequently woke up panicking and terrified. I had undergone something serious at the start of the year, I won’t go into too much detail because it’s too private a loss to reveal. But that loss taught me how afraid I am of not only loneliness, but of boredom, routine and monotony which, in turn, made me non-committal to various things and people in life. I’ve since learned that life doesn’t always have to be jam-packed with adventure, that sometimes the best things, friendships, and relationships will undergo periods of nothingness. Not every moment needs to be seized, but as long as I’m with the right people, doing nothing with the right people will always be a source of joy and contentment. I can be happy on my own too.
And if I still feel restless… I can use my anxiety to be productive. If you’ve watched ‘The Anxiety Optimization,’ an episode of The Big Bang Theory, a certain level of anxiety leads Sheldon to be more productive. The restless energy I feel as a result of my anxiety, a perceived flaw, can be a blessing in disguise and a weapon I can wield to get work done.
So, this trigger? I can make it work wonders for me.
How is your mental health affected by changes in the weather? Does sunny weather have an impact on your mental health? Do you have any strange anxiety triggers? What coping mechanisms would you recommend? Let me know in the comments!
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