Are you S.A.D as f**k?
Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder
On a gloomy day in December, in 2017 I called my manager and friend Francesca, with tears in my eyes and a giant lump in my throat: “Chess, I just don’t know what this life is about.”
She responded with some soothing and empathic words of wisdom, along with a sigh. She had experienced this conversation with me many times before. In fact, this very conversation had happened the year before.
And the year before that.
It was accompanied by the routine experience of Seasonal Affective Disorder that I experience when I remain in the U.K. throughout the winter.
Commonly I will wake up every morning, feeling tired. No matter how good the sleep was, I would feel as though I could, quite literally, go back to sleep and just sleep, like a hibernating bear, until March or April.
The things that usually brought me joy; training, hanging out with friends and watching reruns of Seinfeld ceased to even tickle my serotonin levels.
I was knee deep in existential woes and considered quitting instagram (much to the dismay of my management - sorry again for freaking y’all out).
I am currently in Australia, but watching my U.K. and U.S. friends on instagram has inspired me to write this little blog on Seasonal Affective Disorder.
I want to keep it fairly simple and if you want to dive deeper into understanding it I have linked some interesting articles and research reviews that I have found helpful myself.
Without further ado:
Are you S.A.D AF?
What is it?
Is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons. For most people it begins in autumn/winter and ends around spring.
Although many experience it (1 in 3 in the UK) there isn’t a definitive answer about what causes it.
Most theories relate to our Chronobiology (the branch of biology concerned with cyclical physiological phenomena; including our circadian rhythyms) and how they can influence our hormone levels (and ultimately mood). Light exposure can influence our hormonal levels and in this case the prevalent one being Melatonin (which usually helps us to get our zzz’s). This is why there is whats called the the “latitude” or “photoperiodic” hypothesis of SAD
“According to this hypothesis, if one could demonstrate a clear association between the prevalence of SAD and increasing latitude, this would strongly support the notion that biological adaptations tied to the short days of winter are the primary factor that distinguishes SAD from other mood disorders.”
Did I lose you?
Ok stay with me - understanding the mechanisms behind the cause of SAD isn’t the most pressing issue here - it’s what you can do about it. So let’s continue and again, please hit the links I share if you want to nerd out on those research reviews. It is super interesting, but heavy.
Here we go;
Doctors will usually categorise SAD into three different levels;
Clinical Seasonal Affective Disorder (this being the most intense)
Mild Seasonal Affective Disorder
Winter Blues (common and with minor symptoms).
How does it feel?
It begins mostly with symptoms of just increased tiredness and low Energy. It’s also associated with increased carb cravings (mmmmm, carbs).
However depending on the severity of the person effected, it can begin to involve more depressive-like symptoms; Lethargy, Sadness and Apathy.
Who gets it?
Women are more susceptible to experiencing it than men (but that is the case for most depressive disorders actually).
More research is needed around genetic predisposition.
Those living in higher latitudes (closer to the North Pole) again this is hypothesised to be down to light exposure and how it affects chronobiology.
I think I have SAD what should I do? (Here’s what I do, mixed in with what professionals suggest that you do)
Professionals First and foremost - I really believe in the power of speaking to a professional. I know this isn’t always feasible financially, but if you’re lucky enough to live in a country where this kind of help is subsidised, or you can access a helpline - don’t hesitate. Particularly if you are experiencing some of the more severe symptoms.
Friends - tell your friends about it. Good friends will call you and force you to go outside (which will expose you to more light, and be better for those melatonin and serotonin levels). They will listen when you are feeling blue and can just be the ears that receive the sound of your emotions (in whichever way it’s expressed) - ps. Contrary to popular belief and the way in which many of us were raised, crying is important and the better and more eloquent you are at expressing your emotions, the better you will feel.
Walk in Nature (or at least outdoors) - I already mentioned above that it might be beneficial for your friends to take you for a forced walk in nature, but if you have no friends - or you’re friends are currently unavailable (as mine were at Christmas last year) then it’s up to you to find that time and will to get into nature. The reason being is that studies continue to highlight the fact that time spent in nature actually reduces activity in parts of the brain that relate to depression and anxiety. I know it’s hard to do that when it’s cold and blizard-ing but even a walk around the block a few times will make you feel a million times better.
Light therapy - Exposure to bright light daily via a special (full-spectrum) light source is the treatment method most often recommended for patients whose SAD symptoms are severe enough to affect their daily lives. Typically, SAD patients must sit in front of the light for about a half an hour per day.
I did light therapy last year and it made a huge difference, that being said I will highlight that I also bought a Lumi alarm clock.
I was hoping it would help me to wake up with ‘the light’ and help me wind down with a simulated sunset at night. It worked for a few weeks, but by deep January I was back to feeling tired and depressed again so I don’t think it’s a one size fits all severities kind of tool.
Exercise - I’m sorry to have to tell you what you already know, but exercise effects your mood. Endorphin levels (feel good hormones) are effected by our circadian rhythms but also EXERCISE. You can stimulate these endorphins with regular exercise. Does that mean I think you should go and do HIIT for 45 minutes in Barry’s red light basement every day? It absolutely doesn’t - that will make you worse. Light, but consistent daily movement and exercise is where it’s at. Yoga, weight training focusing on strength and form and some outdoor cardio.
Now would be a good opportunity to suggest my programme - I have no shame - I know it will change your life and your mood:
I’m going to finish up this article with a reminder to stay strong - not for anyone else, but for yourself. You’re worth it.
Times are tough in winter yes, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Let the feelings out as they arise, don’t try to bypass them. They’re coming up for a reason, just know they will be slightly more bittersweet thanks to the accompanying hormones (mentioned above).
Check out the links below for more geeky reads:
Lifeline on 13 11 14
Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36
Headspace on 1800 650 890
QLife on 1800 184 527
Childline – for children and young people under 19
Call 0800 1111 – the number won't show up on your phone bill
The Silver Line – for older people
Call 0800 4 70 80 90