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What Storm teaches us about managing seasonal affective disorder

By Janina Scarlet

Storm (real name Ororo Munroe) is one of the most iconic figures in X-Men canon, one whose powers allow her to control the weather. When Ororo was a little girl, a plane crashed into her family home, killing her parents. Young Ororo barely got out the rubble and thereafter developed claustrophobia, or a severe fear of tight spaces. As an adult, whenever Storm is locked in a closet, a box, or another tight space, she has panic attacks, causing her to be too overwhelmed to manage her powers. Sometimes, as a result of her anxiety, her powers can cause a lot of destruction around her. However, over time Storm learns to manage her anxiety, as well as her weather abilities. 

On a personal level, I’ve always wanted to possess Storm’s abilities to control the weather because usually, the weather controls me. Many people struggle with headaches, backaches, knee pain, and other joint pain. People with chronic pain disorder may know when it is going to rain. I should know. I am one of them. Like a large portion of the population, I struggle with chronic migraines. In my case, they are 100% weather related. 

Drops in barometric pressure, as is the case before rain or snowstorm, can lower of our blood pressure, which leads to dizziness and migraines. In addition, dropping barometric pressure can also lower insulin levels in people with diabetes and put additional strain on our joints, although the exact mechanism of this is unknown. 

Aside from the physiological effects of weather changes, there are also psychological ones. Specifically, many people might become more depressed, irritable, lethargic, and withdrawn in the colder winter months, while some people might become anxious and agitated in the warm summer months. Some people’s condition becomes so invasive that they may struggle to get out of bed, going to work or to their classes, meeting their responsibilities, and feeling too unmotivated to complete their requirements. This is not laziness! This could be Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). 

As a clinical psychologist, I see a lot of clients with SAD, many of whom are college students, who have a difficult time making it to their classes and completing their work. Some people become so isolated, that they struggle leaving their house for days, or sometimes, weeks. Some people might struggle so much, that they might consider suicide. In fact, suicide rates often correlate with extreme temperatures and frequent rain (or for some, too little rain).

Why do weather changes lead to depression or anxiety? During the winter months, as well as during frequent rain, we might be less exposed to sunlight, which can affect our circadian rhythm, potentially making us more fatigued and lethargic. In addition, cold and rainy weather can lower the amount of serotonin in our body, which is responsible for mood regulation. Not enough serotonin production or release in the body can lead to depression. Finally, weather changes can affect our levels of melatonin, which is involved in regulating our sleep. Although many people experience these effects during the weather changes (when it is cold/hot or rainy), others experience these effects beforehand. 

So, WWSD: What would Storm do? Storm is one of the X-Men, but she is also a warrior, in the sense that she stands up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. Even as she is overwhelmed with her anxiety, she will stop at nothing to help others. What helps Storm to find herself in the time of severe distress is her sense of purpose. Remembering the bigger picture, remembering what we are fighting for and how much we’ve already overcome, can help us get through a painful moment. 

Other helpful strategies for managing SAD are light therapy, which refers to using a 10,000-lux light box during the day to help boost your serotonin levels and improve functioning. Other interventions include antidepressants, Vitamin D, and therapy. To find a mental health professional in your area, type in your zip code on Psychology Today.

If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the suicide hotline: 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line: 741-741. 

If you’re like me, if you can feel or predict the weather, remember that you are like Storm, a superhero with a special ability. Remember that it is okay to ask for help. Even the X-Men struggle sometimes. You are not alone.