Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
It’s normal to have some down days here and there – despite all your best efforts of living a happy and healthy lifestyle. But this isn’t just a case of the blues or a few bad moods, is it? It’s worse and you don’t know when it’s going to stop or get better. It could be Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression.
It’s good that you’re reading this – you’re not alone and you’re not going crazy – in fact, SAD is fairly common and affects about 2-3% of people in Canada. That’s a lot of people. What’s even more common is that people are afraid to talk about it because it’s a mental health issue and so they suffer alone, which just makes things worse.
Let me start by saying I’m not a medical doctor or psychotherapist and what I share below is provided purely out of a desire to help people suffering get clear about what they’re experiencing so they can get the help they need. I’m writing this as a coach and as one of the 2-3% of Canadians who have this special gift (I’m not being sarcastic). I’ve had SAD nearly every year of my whole life and some years were pretty bad, especially when I was younger and had no clue what I was going through. If you’re desperate and truly suffering, please go speak to a doctor, the sooner the better. It is treatable and you could be feeling better very soon.
That said, now let’s take a look at some internal/physical symptoms and then some external effects and I’ll close with a few suggestions of where to go from here.
- Hopelessness / Despair
- Loss of self esteem
- Mood swings
- Lethargy / Heaviness / Laziness
- Wanting / Needing to sleep a lot
- Changes in social tendencies (retreating/withdrawing)
- Difficulty concentrating / focusing
- Irritability / difficulty dealing with stress
- Changes in appetite (wanting more carbs – pasta, rice, cereals, sweets)
Effects on Your World
When your internal world changes, everything in the external world changes with it. Your perception is altered and nothing is as it seems.
With SAD, everything gets more challenging. For instance, it’s harder to focus, so it’s harder to work. If it’s harder to work, then stress increases. If stress increases, irritability and frustration are constant companions reducing your tolerance for additional stress and taking away any chance of inner peace and confidence. If irritable and frustrated for too long, it’s going to come out and affect how you relate to people – family, coworkers, clients, etc. A desperate cycle begins, which can be very hard to get out of and you may begin making maladaptive choices in your personal and professional life, which have detrimental consequences. Not only that but if left untreated, it may progress to a major depressive disorder.
It’s hard to be active, positive, optimistic and hopeful with SAD, which often leads a person to feel like there’s no point in trying. They may cycle between anger and sadness/despair and some experience thoughts of suicide.
SAD is serious and anyone who tells you “just take it easy, lighten up, don’t worry, it’s just the winter blaahs it’ll pass”, doesn’t really understand what you’re going through, so speak to someone who does. You’ll feel better just having someone listen to you and empathize with you. Remember, you are not alone.
How SAD is Diagnosed
There aren’t any medical tests to diagnose SAD but you may be asked to take some tests like blood work to rule out other potential issues. To diagnose SAD, a therapist or family doctor will ask you a series of questions about your daily life, your moods, your eating and sleeping patterns among other things, in order discern if there is a significant difference between seasons.
The criteria for SAD includes two consecutive years of this kind of depression during the same season followed by times when you are not depressed for at least two months in a row. But hey, there’s always the first time and waiting to see if it comes back next year, isn’t good enough so you may as well get some help now.
In case anyone is curious, there is also a summer variation of SAD, with some different symptoms but interestingly enough, not as many people seek help for them. To list a few: weight loss, more energy, anxiety, insomnia. Is this ringing a bell for anyone?
How SAD is Treated
If you are suffering, I’ll say it again, speak to a professional to rule out anything else. If it is SAD, the professional will most likely recommend self care treatment activities as a first resort. If those don’t work in two to three weeks, they may suggest medical treatment with anti-depressants.
- Get more sunlight every day – take a walk, spend time outdoors, sit close to windows, etc.
- Get more light in your home/office with regular lamps and fixtures
- Wake up to a dawn simulator or at least put a light on a timer to wake you up
- Light Therapy – purchase a 10,000 Lux light therapy lamp and use it for 30 minutes a day (or more)
- Alter your diet to reduce simple carbs and increase Omega-3 essential fatty acids
- Take a vitamin D supplement
- Exercise every day
- Do Yoga
- Nurture your spirit: read positive materials, keep a gratitude journal,
- Get social even though you don’t want to
- Find or create a support group or at least find a support partner
- Learn some mindfulness and/or cognitive-behavioral techniques for managing symptoms (this is hard to do alone so you may want to take a course or actually work with a trained therapist…not exactly self-care but it’s not medical either).
- Some consider bright light therapy to be a medical option and it may be one of the first recommendations a doctor may give you
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or counseling to help you understand and modify your thought/behavior patterns to help control your symptoms
- Supplements/Alternative Medicine – St John’s Wort, acupuncture, SAMe,
- Anti-depressant medication – if your symptoms are really bad, a doctor may recommend SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors like prozac or zoloft) as a last resort if none of the self-care options are working.
Listen to your inner voice – speak to someone about your symptoms (even if it’s just a friend and not a medical professional) just so you don’t feel so alone.
If you’re ultra-resistant to seeking any medical/professional help, follow the self care recommendations above for a couple of weeks and make a promise to yourself to get professional help if you don’t feel better by the end of the two week trial period.
Keep a journal of how you’re feeling and the thoughts you’ve had along the way. If you feel better in a few weeks, this will seem like a faint dream but remembering how you felt will make you a more empathetic person for those with other, more long-term and hard-to-treat, mental health issues. That is why I said it was a Gift in the opening of this article because it adds a completely new and unique dimension to life, one that can never be fully grasped from a book or film but only through experience.