Things have been a bit quiet on here this week. This is partly due to the fact that all last week I was making a lot of noise for National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and partly because I have started my new job this week. Things have been hectic as I battle my usual anxiety in a heightened circumstance, but there are some real positives to this new position. For starters, I am mostly in charge of my own work and can choose where I do it. Having the freedom to work from home really allows me to access spaces that make me feel safe an comfortable, and because of this I find myself managing new responsibilities and challenges a lot better than I had thought I would.
But I don’t actually want to talk about jobs and things this evening, though I did feel an update was due, instead I was hoping to talk a little bit about SAD.
The clocks change in Autumn and I know it’s coming. No, not Christmas. No, not snow. The creeping feeling of exhaustion, depression, and fear that comes with extra every second of darkness. I want to batten down the hatches, to barricade myself inside, or fall asleep until March. I have SAD.
I am one of many people I know who struggles with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) to some degree. Since I was about eleven years old I began to notice that I was happier in summer than I was in winter. In the summertime I felt like I opened up and was truly more myself as I became more optimistic, I felt I could work harder for longer, I had more physical energy, and I was more body confident too. When I was eleven though, there didn’t seem to be a word for becoming a better version of yourself in the summer. People said it was natural to be happier when the days were longer, because that was when fun things happened. You could eat outside, play tennis with your friends late into the evening, you could go out without a jacket. People said it was normal.
I started to realise it maybe wasn’t so normal when the winter things that people looked forward to didn’t lift my spirits the way they did other people. I didn’t look forward to cosy evenings by the fire. I didn’t feel happy when I thought about those short, dark days spent inside over the Christmas break with the twinkly lights and presents. It was strange, because I knew that I had loved these things as a young infant, though I had loved our summer holidays more. I started to realise it wasn’t normal when it felt like nothing to revitalise me or lift my spirits in the face of the oppressive darkness. Others were enlivened by festive Christmas events, delightful meals, hot chocolate and the anticipation of snow, the first frost. I felt like all these things would have been better if the sun would only shine. I didn’t know the terminology for what I was feeling, so I just started to say that I hated winter. That I hated the darkness. I didn’t realise that the darkness itself was making me hate it.
Seasonal Affective Disorder isn’t fully understood but it is widely accepted that lack of sunlight may stop the hypothalamus working properly, affecting the body’s production of melatonin and serotonin, as well as the body’s internal body clock. SAD affects 1 in 3 people in the UK, but over 50% of all UK adults say their mood is worse in the winter than in the summer. I think this is part of the reason that we tend to take SAD quite lightly, ranking it as one of the “lesser” mental illnesses, perhaps because we think it can’t be that bad it goes away for half of the year. We think “Well, everyone gets down in winter – its not that big a deal.”
Except it is.
SAD isn’t gloomy thoughts. SAD isn’t just a melancholy feeling when you wake up to another grey day.
At it’s worst SAD can be the inability to get out of bed. SAD can be a nightmare that you can’t wake up from or fall asleep in, as it sends your sleeping pattern into torturous haywire. SAD can be fucking awful, the thing that stops you being able to live your life on a day to day basis. Because SAD may be Affected by the Seasons, but it is still Depression and carries with it all the possible implications. For the 8% of the UK population who are acute sufferers this could mean sleep problems, panic attacks, disordered eating, and numerous other inhibiting symptoms that are much more than simply wishing for some sunshine. Most of the time you don’t long for sunshine, because many people don’t know how sunshine could possibly help. They just want to feel better. I didn’t consciously wish for sunshine – for a long time I didn’t know that it might be what I needed.
“You’re always so tired,” my Mum said to me once, “I think there’s something wrong with you.”
I had SAD. I was overloaded with melatonin.
Melatonin is the hormone in your brain that makes you sleepy, and one of the affects of SAD is that the brain’s melatonin levels become affected by the decreased exposure to sunlight. Apart from being more depressed than usual in winter, in peak winter I can sleep up to fourteen hours a night and still need a nap in the afternoon. My husband jokes that I basically hibernate in winter, and whilst it may seem a bit funny, I do have an overwhelming sensation of constant exhaustion from mid November to February.
This tiredness makes it incredibly difficult to be motivated and to concentrate, and when I was at University with hours of study to do in a unnaturally lit library it was a terrible combination. Not to mention the fact I was living in Scotland, where daylight hours in winter decreased by a massive four hours in winter compared to the South of England where I had grown up. I knew I was struggling, but to be honest, I thought I might just be going mad. Until somebody loaned me a daylight lamp, and something clicked into place.
I didn’t think it would actually work, but I was amazed. Studying by the daylight lamp gave me more energy rather than less, and even enough energy to get out and exercise which raised my serotonin levels. I had sort of never really thought that these treatments might work on me because whilst I felt worse in winter, my depression and anxiety plagued me year round. But there is a reason going on holiday to the sunshine can make me feel like someone has opened the shuttered windows of my mind for the first time in months. Using a daylight lamp gave me some answers, and also some new solutions. Whilst sunshine is not going to cure my depression, I do now know that some time outside in natural light will help things seem better. Whilst sunshine is not going to stop my disordered eating, I know that not letting myself sleep for fourteen hours so I can make the most of my daylight hours is going to actually help in the long run. Whilst sunshine can’t cure my anxiety, a daylight lamp can help me work longer and harder in the winter.
The knowledge of what SAD is, it’s symptoms, and how they can be alleviated has greatly impacted how I change my every day. My husband refers to me sometimes as a lizard, because I am known to bask in sunlight, or seek the sunniest spots in a room, coffee shop, or restaurant to occupy. It might seem funny but it is true. I have adopted the habit in my life of always looking for sunshine. Not just because I like it or it feels warm on my face, but because I know it can help me get through the day better. It can help me sleep better. It can help me eat better. It can help me feel better. It might be able to help you feel better too.
If you have really struggled for the last few winters, and find that you exhibit many of the symptoms shown on Mind’s SAD webpage, you might want to consider evaluating ways you can potentially treat these symptoms through lifestyle changes or use of a daylight lamp. They can be expensive, but I can attest to their value. If you have any questions feel free to ask me, or you can call your local GP or Mind for advice.
Antonia Molloy’s article about SAD for the Indie : Incredibly informative with statistics
SAD page on NHS website : Basic medical information and treatment options
The Seasonal Affective Disorder website : Great resource for advice on how to cope, and SAD lights that you can purchase.
Kat Brown’s great article at The Pool about exercise and SAD : Amazing to have such a strong voice on the inside, and great advice from how one person is coping with their SAD. Kat is so funny and relatable – you’ll definitely feel like you can get through it too.
Norman E Rosenthal’s article about how to beat SAD at the Guardian: Norman has his own website, is an MD and author of “Winter Blues: Everything you need to know to beat SAD.” I haven’t read the book but if this article is anything to go by then I know it is helpful and practical.