Understanding seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
I don’t know about you, but when I get to this time of year, particularly when the clocks change and Halloween is done, and the smell of fireworks are just a mere whiff of a memory, I start to feel more tired. I have less energy, I’m more irritable and moody and I have absolutely no desire to go out into the dark and exercise.
I’m sure I’m not alone with this, and it got me thinking - a lot of my clients that I’m currently working with are also feeling quite low in energy and mood right now.
So, what could be causing this?
I believe as soon as the dark nights appear and our daylight hours are reduced, I suffer from SAD, better known as seasonal affective disorder. I would actually like to hibernate from November through to March but obviously know that I can’t. In these winter months, my clients (who are also suffering from the same condition) need my counselling services more.
What is seasonal affective disorder?
It’s not a fad or some new trendy term for mild depression. The exact cause of SAD is not fully understood, but it's often linked to reduced exposure to sunlight on autumn and winter days.
The main school of thought is that a lack of sunlight might stop a part of the brain called the hypothalamus from working correctly, which may affect the overproduction of the hormone melatonin. This could make you feel more sleepy, and lethargic at this time of year. To the sufferer, it may feel that basically your get up and go has got up and gone!
Is this condition a recognised one?
Absolutely, SAD is recognised in the DSM-IV and DSM-5 manuals (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Its classification has changed and is no longer classified as a 'unique mood disorder' but is now a specifier "with seasonal pattern" for the recurrent major depressive disorder that occurs at a specific time of the year (usually the winter months), then disappears once daylight hours are increased.
How would I know if I am suffering from SAD?
Some potential symptoms (although not prescriptive and should not be used as a diagnostic tool) could be described as:
- feeling tired and lethargic even after a good nights sleep
- a persistently low mood that is hard to shake.
- overeating, particularly stodgy comfort high calorific foods
- a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities like exercise and being social
- feeling irritable and quick to anger
- lack of personal hygiene
- feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness and low self-esteem
- wanting to remain safe and secure within the house
- bouts of tearfulness for no apparent reason
- feeling more stressed or anxious
- a reduced sex drive and libido
What can I do to help myself if I have SAD?
Between November and March, we lose the daylight hours with the shortest day of the year being on the 21st of December, also known as the winter solstice. We only have a meagre eight hours and 46 minutes of daylight on this day. The one good thing is folks, after that, we start to gain up to two minutes and seven seconds of precious daylight every day.
Simple suggestions to help with SAD
- As it’s light that we are in a deficit of, light therapy is usually a good start. Invest in some bright lamps, bulbs, salt rock crystals. The more light the brain is exposed to, the hippocampus becomes a happy one again. It won't know whether it's artificial or real light.
- Try and get out each day for a walk, run or just sit in the garden as it is potentially also vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin) that we are lacking. Even on wet, cold days, it will also break those negative thought patterns.
- Maybe try some mind-body connection techniques such as yoga, tai chi, meditation, guided imagery, music or art therapy.
- Counselling is another option to treat SAD. CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), gestalt and person-centred counselling can help you; capture and change negative thought patterns and behaviours that may be making you feel worse at this time of year.
- Learn healthy ways to cope with SAD, especially with reducing avoidance behaviour and scheduling activities. In other words, don't over plan.
- Learn how to manage stress and anxiety. There are many ways to do this, there are many apps out there now that you can download on your phone to alleviate anxiety.
- Acknowledge your thoughts, moods and feelings as they emerge. I get my clients to capture their emotions and feelings and note what made it a good or bad day.
- Talk to friends or family - no one should suffer alone.
Hopefully, this article may have helped you understand more about SAD. As a gestalt practitioner, I notice what comes into my awareness on the day. What works for me is taking out my puppy in all weathers and surrounding myself with bright lighting whilst working. This really helps to shift my mindset, low mood and lethargy.
Awareness = Choice = Change