Seasonal affective disorder is something I deal with each and every year. Just before the holidays, and right after we “fall back” at the end of daylight savings time, I turn into a shadow of myself.
I always know it’s coming. For me, it feels like a grey cloud hovering in my mind and turning my thoughts into water vapor. The voices and self-talk get louder and louder, cramming more into my head about what-if and shoulda woulda coulda. I worry more, I get angry more, and if I don’t begin to tackle it immediately, I’m a hot mess by Thanksgiving.
At first, I never really knew why I acted like this. For years, I’d go through my phases, thinking I enjoyed winter and living in darkness. (I was such a cool kid, let me tell you). Granted, some parts of me still love the dark, but those parts are far less destructive than the other pieces of me I used to hang out with.
It wasn’t until college when I first heard of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Honestly, I don’t think there was much of a name for it until then, so that might have been why. Initially, I brushed it off, assuming it was a diagnosis for folks far more depressed than myself – people who needed to be taken seriously. Certainly not me.
But just like alcoholism, I’ve come to believe you can have high-functioning depression. As an introvert, I spend much of my time reflecting inwardly on myself – more so over the last five years than ever before. Maybe it’s because I grew out of my 20s, or maybe because I got married and drove across the country to start a new life. Maybe it started because I’m simply a thinker. Whatever the case, I spend a lot of time in my head.
And unfortunately, that’s where my problem with seasonal affective disorder begins.
What is seasonal affective disorder?
Simply put, seasonal affective disorder is seasonal depression. It occurs for the sufferer around the same time, or season, each year. Symptoms include:
- increased anxiety, anger, apathy, and general discontent
- feelings of depression and lack of concentration
- weight gain and appetite changes
- fatigue or sleeplessness, insomnia
- irritability and social isolation
That last one? Yeah, that’s me. Like I said, I turn into a shadow of myself when my seasonal affective disorder strikes. After the sun disappears from the days and I’m shrouded in darkness, so is my mind. I begin to withdraw from my friends first, and then eventually I try to push away my family. Sometimes, my mind fills with hopelessness and my anxious thoughts get the best of me. I become the worst version of myself.
Luckily, my husband recognizes this about me and each time my seasonal affective disorder begins it’s choking hold on me, he finds a way to help me recognize it, too.
Because at first, I can’t see it. In a way, part of me can tell, but for the most part I don’t see what’s happening until someone holds a mirror at me. My mind will get louder on a regular basis – that’s usually my first sign. Then, when my seasonal affective disorder wraps its arms around me, I’ll begin fighting more. I’ll fight with myself, the dog, and my husband. I’ll start snapping at my child, instead of showing her to patience and guidance she needs.
And when it really sets in – when my seasonal affective disorder begins to run rampant – I’ll withdraw completely from society. I’ll set out my grocery list for the week and refuse to go, making up excuses of having a headache or not feeling well.
By the way, headaches, body pains, and nausea? Those are legitimate symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, too. Physical symptoms of illness are a common sign of depression and other mental health issues.
I’ll also stop cleaning the house. And boy, does that send me into a spiral. Normally, I absolutely love having a clean, tidy house. As a stay-at-home mom, I spend so much time inside my home and I enjoy having everything in it’s place. It puts me at ease. So, when the dishes pile up and the dog hair goes un-vacuumed, it’s usually a sure sign my seasonal affective disorder is taking over.
It begins to bother me. I want the house to be clean so badly! But because I’m not cleaning and keeping up my side of the stay-at-home bargain, I’ll feel even more useless. And the feeling of hopelessness will invade my heart and mind, dragging me even deeper. The dishes will continue to pile up. The grey clouds continue to form. And I continue to dive deeper.
And my husband (bless that man), always knows just how to pull me out of it. Whether we fight our way through it or not – and trust me, there’s usually some sort of argument – I eventually turn around and face myself. I start to see just what’s happening to me. I can begin to feel the cold grip seasonal depression has on me. And better yet, I can begin to shake it off.
Seasonal affective disorder and its causes
According to Psychology Today, seasonal affective disorder affects an estimated 10 million Americans, and it is four times more common in women than men. An additional 10 to 20 percent of Americans have a mild form of seasonal depression.
And although it may sound like a separate diagnosis, seasonal affective disorder is actually one type listed under the umbrella of your every day depression. Also known as the “winter blues”, seasonal affective disorder can even affect sufferers in the summer – known more commonly as summer SAD.
So, what causes all of this suffering? Unfortunately, no one really knows. However, there are a few theories:
- Melatonin production – your body produces melatonin during darker hours, signaling your body to get tired and fall asleep. Melatonin is part of the natural circadian rhythm. This theory states that darker, shorter days cause many seasonal affective disorder sufferers to become more tired and lethargic.
- Vitamin D deficiency and serotonin – Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates our mood and social behavior,appetite, sexual desire, sleep, and memory. Those with seasonal affective disorder most likely have a problem regulating this chemical. Researchers believe a deficiency in vitamin D may cause seasonal depression. Our skin naturally creates vitamin D from sunlight, and less sunlight during the winter months causes lower vitamin D levels in our bodies. Since vitamin D plays a role in serotonin levels, there’s reason to believe a deficiency can cause seasonal affective disorder.
Treating seasonal affective disorder
Since seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression, it’s often managed with the same treatment processes. Techniques such as antidepressants, counseling and therapy all help to combat seasonal affective disorder. Some treatments unique to seasonal depression include vitamin D supplements and even light therapy.
Based on the theory that seasonal affective disorder is caused by a lack of sunlight, sufferers may find a broad-spectrum light box or visor can help manage their symptoms. Typically, the user will sit in front of the box or wear the visor for about 30 to 60 minutes a day, depending on the severity of their symptoms.
The idea is that this additional light source will increase vitamin D and serotonin levels and help improve issues stemming from seasonal depression. Ideally, the sufferer will use the light source daily through the darker winter months until increased sunlight is more readily available when spring rolls around.
The downside? Well, according to Psychology Today, using a light box can cause headaches, eye strain, fatigue, irritability, and difficulty sleeping. It can also cause eye damage for those with certain eye conditions, skin irritation, and those suffering from manic depressive disorders such as bipolar must be closely monitored for changes in manic symptoms.
After doing a bit of research on different light therapy options, I found this gem: the Circadian Optics Lattis Lamp. It immediately caught my eye because of its design – I could definitely see it sitting on my work desk and blending into its surroundings, which is a huge winner for me.
Although other light lamps are nicely designed, they look like bulky tablets, which I wasn’t a real fan of. The Lattis Lamp is also UV-free, and since skin cancer is a thing, I fell in love with it immediately. I might just have to try this one out!
Managing my seasonal affective disorder
Personally, I’m not a fan of traditional treatments like medications. Over the years, I’ve seen multiple therapists and been through the counseling wringer and frankly, none of it worked for me. Eventually, I turned to alcohol to deal with my problems (we’ll talk more about that another time), and after a few years of a loveless life, I finally found my husband.
Initially, I leaned on him to help with my problems. And believe me, help he did. But he didn’t enable it, and that was the big turning point in learning how to handle things for myself. Over the years, he consistently highlighted the flaws in my plan, and I learned and adjusted. Sometimes I hated him for it, but I always learned and adjusted.
My biggest turning point came when I finally read up (again) on seasonal affective disorder and realized, hey, this is actually me. I fully recognized my problem for what it was. And we all know the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one.
After admitting to myself what was going on, I knew I had to find a way to fix it. By this point, I realized my alcohol dependence came from my seasonal depression. I also knew my years of therapy in high school wasn’t going to help me.
Besides, it was less about needing someone to talk to and more of finding the power within myself.
How I learned to treat myself
It took years of self-reflection and lots of trial and error, but over time I finally learned how to manage my seasonal affective disorder.
Now, before I continue, I have to say this: I am not a doctor. I am not a professional. I am just a regular ol’ person on the vast Internet blogging about how I manage my personal seasonal depression symptoms. Do not follow this as medical or professional advice of any kind.
If you believe you’re having problems with your mental state, please seek professional help immediately!!
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s continue…
Needless to say, alcohol didn’t solve my problems. So over time, I taught myself to lose my reliance on it. It wasn’t a perfect process, and I still have my moments. But eventually, I realized that turning to alcohol in times of stress just wasn’t going to help me anymore.
So I decided to flip the switch and opted for healthier habits. Going to the gym became my favorite pastime. I learned I had a knack for distance running, and that I enjoyed the feeling of a heavy weightlifting session. Again, it wasn’t a perfect process, but I learned a lot along the way.
What I do now
After years of learning about my seasonal affective disorder, I finally developed certain ways to tackle the problem. In fact, I’ve created a routine to help pull me out of my rut. Now, these might not work for everyone, but hopefully you’ll find a few good ideas:
- Time to cry
When seasonal affective disorder first hits me, I cry. And I don’t mean sobbing helplessly for hours. But I know I need to untangle the emotions and thoughts in my head, and in order to do that I need to just get them out. So, I cry. I buy a pint of my favorite ice cream, turn on one of my favorite movies, and I cry. It sounds really lame, I know, but getting those emotions out helps to clear the way for some brighter thoughts.
- Get extra rest
Immediately after my ice cream and movie night, I head to bed. I curl up in the comfiest clothes I own, drown myself in blankets, and drift off to sleep.
One important step about this part – I read every night before bed, but I don’t read on my Kindle (I have the Kindle Paperwhite by the way and it’s fantastic! Click here to check out the newest version). I use a plain old paper book. I also put my phone on silent and plug it in for the night. Why? Well, screens contain blue light, and blue light triggers your cortisol output. When we wake up naturally, we do so because the morning sun actually contains blue light. It helps to energize us by stimulating our cortisol levels.
Unplugging an hour before bed is so important because of that blue light. Without the glare of technology and now that the sunlight is gone, our bodies will automatically turn up the melatonin machine, pumping out our sleepy chemicals and easing us under the covers.
On top of this, reading helps to clear my mind from the worries of the day, helping me refocus on something relaxing and stress-free. So remember, choose a fiction novel! Reading about politics won’t help.
By the way, coffee also stimulates your cortisol levels, which is why drinking it in the evening is generally frowned upon. A stress hormone plus caffeine before bed? That’s just asking for a tough night of sleep!
- Get outside
The next morning, I make sure I get outside at some point. Unless there’s freezing rain or so cold my nose hairs freeze (that actually happens), I bundle up with my daughter and we head out the door.
Since vitamin D deficiency is linked to increased symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, standing in whatever sunlight you can find is incredibly beneficial. I usually walk my daughter to a nearby playground and let her burn some energy while I soak in the morning sun.
The playground is surrounded by trees, but I can always find a little patch of sunlight no matter where I’m standing. I always give myself a few minutes in those sunny patches, letting it warm my face. I know my skin will automatically do its job, converting sunlight into that precious vitamin D for my body.
If you want to add more vitamin D to your daily routine (it’s also great for bone health, by the way), here’s a few great options:
Zhou Nutrition K2 & D3 combo supplement – This one combines vitamins K2 and D3 for maximum absorption potential. Click here for more on the importance of combining K2 and D3.
Nordic Naturals Baby’s Vitamin D3 drops – I used this one when my daughter was an infant and loved it!
Vitafusion Vitamin D3 gummies – I absolutely love gummies when I take supplements. It’s like giving yourself daily treat!
- Get some exercise
Oh my gosh, this one is so important! Exercise boosts your endorphins, and endorphins make you feel good. That’s why some people find that drugs are so awesome – they boost the same endorphins. But please, don’t take drugs. They’re bad, mmkay?
In all seriousness, getting your sweat on is amazing, even if you’re really bad at it. There’s days where I’ll commit to a 7 or 8-mile run pushing my daughter in her stroller. Then, there’s other days I’ll walk with her to our community center gym and pump out a quick 20-minute full body workout while she watches Daniel Tiger. It’s not perfect, and I’m certainly not the fittest person on the planet, but getting in those sweat sessions helps to clear my head of whatever’s bothering me.
Although I have other techniques for feeling better, those are my four favorite go-to’s for managing seasonal affective disorder. Over time, I’ve learned that whenever I feel particularly down or irrationally irritable about something, I usually just have to step outside and spend more time in the sun. Getting my vitamin D and some extra sleep usually does the trick, at least for a while.
Managing seasonal affective disorder – and depression in general – can seem impossible, especially when you’re in the thick of it. That feeling of utter hopelessness is like a lead weight dragging you down to the ocean floor. You can’t breathe, you can’t think, you just want to survive. And, it literally hurts. Hell, I constantly get headaches when my symptoms start to pop up.
But, I also know if I don’t fight it, things will only get worse. I’ll turn my loving home into a hellscape. My family will shrink away from me and I’ll find myself in deeper isolation than ever. I’ve lost many friends over the years because of my disorder, but that doesn’t mean I need to lose more. I don’t need to take this sitting down.
If you’re having problems with seasonal affective disorder, remember that you’re not alone. Find a way to find yourself again. Fight for yourself. You’re worth it, and I love you.
Like what I had to say? There’s more where that came from: