Are you feeling SAD?
You’ve tried light boxes, vitamin D and zumba and still you feel depressed and anxious through the short, gloomy days of January. Self help articles are full of advice on taking more exercise, eating healthily, counting your blessings and spending more time socialising. Of course, all these things can be helpful and until we try them for ourselves we will not know whether or not they help us with our own particular way of experiencing ‘the winter blues’.
It seems that one in ten of us living in the northern hemisphere will experience Seasonal Affective Disorder because, unlike the majority of the population, our bodies generate a biological signal of the change of season. Most of us hardly notice the change and simply add extra layers in winter which we discard with happy abandon as summer comes. Ten per cent of us though, experience a deep sense of dread and foreboding when the clocks go back in autumn, knowing that this heralds shorter days with longer periods of darkness.
Gradually we will spend more hours in artificial light, it will be much harder to get up in the morning and often we will not see the sun for days at a time. We may experience symptoms such as anxiety, panic attacks and mood changes. We may crave comfort food and feel as though we don't want to socialise or speak to anyone. Somewhere deep inside ourselves we have an overwhelming desire to hibernate.
So what can we do to help ourselves? I suggest that it is helpful to be mindful of the rhythm of the seasons and of our own bodily rhythms. Every year winter comes around and every year we resist and fight it. How can we avoid the stress of this conflict and adjust our daily lives in small ways to be on better terms with the darkness? I believe we first need to give ourselves permission to mourn the loss of light by accepting that we do indeed feel SAD and that is OK. Because we are receiving a biological signal of the change it makes sense to listen to our bodies telling us what they need. This will vary from individual to individual but might include pampering ourselves with hot scented baths or aromatherapy massage, anything that awakens our senses and increases our sense of well being. It is the season for candles, spices, log fires, reading a good book and relaxation.
Sometimes SAD is a stand alone condition which strikes at the onset of winter and sometimes it is a deepening of an already present depression. Either way, talking can help when we find a welcoming space where we can share our feelings whatever they are. Often we fear that talking about our depression is a burden for our friends and family and that only increases our sense of isolation, as if we are the only person in the world who feels like this. Our choice seems to be either casting gloom all around or keeping up a false brightness that takes so much energy it exhausts us completely.
It is easy when we are in the midst of our darkness to imagine we are the only ones suffering and to feel bad about that. It is an easy step from there to putting ourselves down, thinking negative thoughts and a downward spiral into depression. Finding a counsellor who will listen to our unique experience and not judge or make assumptions can really help us to feel less alone as we are met and understood in all our individuality and complexity. Feeling heard and accepted helps us in turn to accept ourselves and our feelings and to create greater harmony in our lives whatever the season.