As the seasons begin to change, we begin to adapt. For example, the type of clothes we wear, the PJs we put on, or the number of blankets that cover our bed to keep us warm on those cold winter nights! Our diet and exercise routines may become altered, and sometimes our sleep schedules change as well.
If one is suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), this change in seasons may bring about significant emotional challenges. For those of you who develop this debilitating condition, normal moods and behaviors are compromised. This may be anxiety-provoking, and you may feel that your emotions and your life are out of control. You are not alone.
A Day in the Life of SAD
While some individuals have difficulty with depressive symptoms during the spring and summer the majority of these individuals struggle even more during late fall and winter.
Experiencing winter SAD is commonly compared to a state of hibernation. Common symptoms include an increase in appetite, carbohydrate craving, weight gain, reduced energy, a decreased desire for physical activity, hypersomnia (oversleeping), and avoidance of social situations. The opposite appears true for those who suffer from a summer SAD condition, characterized by a decreased appetite, weight loss and insomnia.
“Mark” is 35 years old and suffers from winter SAD. He is a devoted husband and a father of two young children, a boy and a girl. Mark is an avid fly fisherman and works in the landscaping field. He normally loves his job and is appreciative of the life he has, but as winter approaches he begins to feel differently. At this time of year, most every year, his anxiety increases because he knows the symptoms of depression are just around the corner. He often describes these feelings as, “The cloud over me that is just waiting to pour rain down upon my head.” When winter finally arrives, his job responsibilities change and, “It is primarily focused on snow removal and less about the creativity I get to add to people’s homes through the landscaping side of the business.” Mark is passionate about his fly fishing as a means of taking care of his emotional health. He states, “It’s relaxing for me. I can do it alone or with my buddies, but no matter how bad I may be feeling at the time, fly fishing reminds me to appreciate the simple things in life.”
In the winter months Mark is unable to fly fish and does not have as much work to occupy his mind and his time. This takes away his usual coping mechanisms. Because he does not provide as much income for his family during this time, his self-worth is also diminished. During group therapy one evening, another group member asked when Mark first noticed that this became a pattern. He responded, “If I am being completely honest, it took a few years for me to admit what was happening to me. I did not want to accept that this was a pattern or that I needed help. I already felt like crap about myself and I didn’t want to believe that I was depressed, so I avoided the whole situation. I felt ashamed of myself for feeling the way that I did. Kind of like I was less of a man.” He shared that at those times he would try to keep himself busy with snow removal and with family life, but remarked that he would burn out quickly. Mark went on to say, “I would justify my need to sleep all the time by how exhausted I was from the snow removal. I told myself that it was okay to be drinking more to help relieve the stress. It took my wife calling me out for me to realize that this went deeper than I realized.”
Why is my SAD-ness seasonal?
With the help of his wife and psychotherapist, Mark was able to recognize that his pattern of depression cycled with the onset of winter. He learned that at this time of year he developed a serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine deficiency, in part due to the lack of sunlight and Vitamin D he usually obtained.[i] For Mark as well as others with this condition, there may also be adverse changes in Melatonin and Circadian Rhythms(the body clock in charge of sleep/wake cycles and other psychological processes).[ii]
For those who suffer from Summertime SAD, the onset of symptoms has been attributed to schedules being disrupted, poor body image, financial concerns around vacation expenses, and social isolation from those hot summer days and nights. During the summer months as family vacations get underway, additional child care may be needed, and both sleep and eating schedules may become dislocated. Many people spend their recreation time at the beach or engage in other outdoor activities. The thought of cooler clothing (for example bathing suits, T-shirts and shorts) becomes daunting for some given their concerns about their body image, which may lead them to prefer to isolate themselves in an air conditioned home where they can watch television and not worry about what they are wearing. This may in turn lead to feelings of loneliness.
Begin to untangle the clouds
Seasonal Affective Disorder has shown to be more prevalent in those that live further from the equator, already suffer from depression or bipolar disorder, have a family history of depression, and are female. Regardless of whether or not you have any of these risk factors, if you suffer from signs and symptoms of this condition feel hopeful that there are proven techniques and treatments to help you feel better, and that you are not alone.[iii] . Below are some steps you can take to help you untangle the clouds that are gathering over your head, before they pour rain down upon you!
- Step 1: Recognize the signs and symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. These often resemble those that characterize Major Depressive Disorder but will develop during specific seasons, as opposed to enduring throughout the year.
- Step 2: Remind yourself that what you are feeling is temporary and that you can live through it. Set specific goals to help you stay on track to healing, such as daily exercise, improved nutrition, spending more time outdoors and near windows to get more sunlight, taking Vitamin D, and increasing your social engagement.
- Step 3: Plan ahead. Because SAD correlates to specific seasons, you may be able to begin to develop a plan in advance of symptoms developing, to help you stay on track with sleep and eating schedules.
- Step 4: Develop and write down a list of achievable goals and self-affirming statements that will help motivate you. Post it where you can see it every day.
- Step 5: Before going to bed each evening, write down in a journal three positive accomplishments or successes that occurred that day. This simple method may help you feel better about yourself.
- Step 6: Consult with a therapist and/or psychiatrist to secure effective treatment For example, Prozac (Fluoxetine) and Wellbutrin (Bupropion) have been shown to be effective in some studies. Seek out additional resources to aid you in preventing or recovering from the disabling symptoms of SAD (for example group therapy, individual therapy, family therapy, light therapy).
By committing yourself to following through on these steps, indeed “the sun will come out tomorrow,” and you will begin to feel happier, healthier, and hopeful as the seasons begin to change.
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