Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) - Clocks and counselling
Emotional health matters; and that is not just the view of a therapist. There is now a growing acceptance that our general emotional well-being is important and this can impact upon our physical fitness.
In order to ensure we stay healthy, we need to watch out for any debilitating conditions that may adversely affect us. That means finding ways of dealing with the serious and the trivial, the persistent and the intermittent.
This calls for improved self-awareness and a readiness to take action. In the same way that we look to alleviate those irritating features of the common cold by the use of over the counter medication such as sprays and tablets, perhaps we can now start to consider similar remedies for common seasonal complaints which imperceptibly impact on our emotional health – and at this time of year Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is probably the most obvious example.
The comparison between the common cold and SAD is a particularly apt one. Although we want to avoid colds we grudgingly accept that each winter we will probably have a cold of sorts. We know that it will leave us feeling wretched for a day or two, that we will endure a sore throat with the accompanying embarrassment of coughing and spluttering. But we also know that the condition will be relatively short lived and it will pass. It can also be managed.
There is a similar sense as to what may happen with what has become known as SAD. This may not be quite as short lived as that irritating cold but SAD can also be seen as a transitory phenomenon. The clocks go back, the nights draw in and when the weather is cold, wet and windy, our mood sinks accordingly. For some people that change in the environment around us matters. Just as with the common cold, some people can avoid SAD symptoms altogether but others will experience a more pronounced dip in mood.
For those who become aware of feeling down as we move into winter and those darker evenings, a good place to start is with a quick review of where we are and what is happening.
Could this sense of feeling down be an impact of SAD or is there some other reason. Is there anything else going on in my life which could account for this fall off in mood? Is this dip in mood substantive or is it just an understandable reaction to being tired or irritated through too much work, lack of sleep or squabbling children?
If there are some specific areas of concern then there may be some focused work to be done in that particular area of life. But if all else in life seems well then perhaps SAD may be having an impact.
One of the challenges of working with emotions and moods is that we are still at an early stage in the process of understanding how the brain works and why our emotions ebb and flow. We cannot confirm SAD in the same way as the doctor in casualty can use x-rays to identify a broken arm. Instead we need to go with what feels like the right diagnosis and treatment plan but be prepared to change courses mid-stream if necessary.
And what is that treatment plan as far as SAD is concerned? It will differ from person to person. There are no simple panaceas but perhaps we need to recognise that just as with the common cold we should concentrate on alleviating symptoms rather than on trying to achieve an all embracing cure.
That is not a negative response just an acceptance of the reality of the human condition. We know for that most people a warm bright summers day automatically brings a feel good factor and we turn our face up to the sun. That is why we endure airports and head for those beaches in the summer. Conversely between October and March there are cold grey skies and rain with a resulting tendency to turn inward and burrow down into coats. That is just how it is!
Nevertheless as there may be up to four months of dark days with cold, overcast weather each year, that amounts to a major part of life. Even if this is not our favourite season it would be unfortunate and perhaps a little careless to waste the days and not to try to enjoy this time. There is a real incentive to try to alleviate the impact of those grey skies and continue to engage with life – and means doing all we can to keep SAD at bay.
For many people the treatment plan may focus on action – and on trying to confuse the body. There is for example a suggestion that we retain a primeval hibernation instinct which surfaces in the winter. That encourages the tendency to shut the door, light the fire and just wait for spring to come.
If that works well for you then perhaps the answer is just to stay with that but for many people, virtual hibernation may reinforce a sense of flatness, of time lost and of that low mood. So what are the alternatives?
There is a strong argument across many different branches of therapy that just getting out and doing it – whatever ‘it’ is – is almost certain to help lift our mood. Our bodies reward action. A simple test of this is to go for a brisk walk on a winter’s day. It is difficult not to feel lifted by the time you return home whether there has been snow, rain and hail.
The body has some remarkable reward mechanisms and by undertaking some brisk exercise you will activate some of these. And going out anywhere is likely to involve more exercise than just sitting in front of the screen even if it is just a walk to the car! What else apart from exercise? In addition to activity, the body needs energy and appreciates warmth – and hence food and sex are probably reasonable responses. Of course activity itself is not the complete answer but remember we are looking at alleviating symptoms not trying to achieve a complete cure for SAD.
So what else is helpful? You could combine some healthy self-talk and tasks. Some therapists will suggest committing to some simple feel good tasks. Examples can be to say hello to someone each day who you do not know, list at least two things at the end of the day to be grateful for – and give someone a daily hug whether partner, friend, neighbour or pet. Now that can have an interesting outcome!
The challenge is that when we feel down it can be difficult to find that initial push to do these obvious things. Perhaps that is where a sharing of these feelings can be helpful. There can be real advantages in finding an ally to support you. Perhaps an obvious example is that walk.
On a cold wet evening it may be quite difficult to confront that SAD feeling; to get up, put your coat on and go out on your own for a walk in the cold may be asking a lot. But what if a friend is coming round to walk with you? Are you going to go to the door and say ‘no thanks – not today’? You may but it is unlikely. And that meal - you may not be bothered to cook for yourself but if there is someone else there to say thank you, you may find the motivation to get cooking.
If all else fails there is always the option to go and talk to therapist. Psychodynamic, cognitive behavioural, personal centred, existential approaches can be helpful. I am not sure in the depths of winter that the modality is that important. Just the very act of contacting someone, of going out, sitting and talking with someone who is really interested in you, will have a beneficial impact.
These actions may not completely banish SAD but they will help. And after Christmas, comes the New Year. evenings get lighter, and spring will be just around the corner.
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