Seasonal Affective Disorder and what we can do about it
If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, Fall is upon us with Winter quickly on its heels. The beginning of Fall is one of favorite times of the year with the clean, crisp air and the leaves changing color. However, as the colder and darker days set in, I tend to struggle with my mood and physical health (dystonia and pain in particular). If you have you ever noticed a change in moods during the Fall and Winter months, you may be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The acronym is ironic, because the change in seasons, especially this time of year, can cause people to become sad and have other changes in moods. For many, this can have a profound effect on their physical well-being.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also called winter depression, winter blues, and seasonal depression, is a type of depression in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year exhibit depressive symptoms that come with changing seasons. It typically starts in the late fall and early winter and goes away during the spring and summer. Depressive episodes linked to the summer can occur, but are much less common than winter episodes of SAD.
Symptoms of SAD include low energy, a depressed mood, feelings of hopelessness, difficulty concentrating, feeling agitated, changes in sleep and appetite, a loss of pleasure in activities, social withdrawal (feel like “hibernating”), lethargy, and apathy, among other things.
Researchers have yet to uncover the specific cause for SAD, but it is believed that reduction in sunlight in winter can throw our biological clock out of whack and disrupt hormones such as serotonin and melatonin, which regulate sleep, mood, and feelings of well-being.
People who live farther from the equator or have a family history of depression tend to experience the symptoms more frequently. People with SAD also may produce less vitamin D. Vitamin D is believed to play a role in serotonin activity. Most standard blood tests now check vitamin D levels. I encourage you to have yours checked, as it may play a role in SAD and other unwanted conditions.
Although we can’t fight nature’s pattern of light and temperature, there are things we can do to combat the intensity of SAD symptoms and lift our mood. These include going outside more often and getting plenty of sunlight, exercising, getting plenty of sleep, getting involved with more social activities, and practicing relaxation exercises and stress management, which you can learn more about in my 2 books. It also helps to make your house brighter by trimming the bushes around your windows and keeping your blinds and curtains open during the day.
Get up early to take advantage of as much daylight as possible. If possible, sit near a window at work and home. Also consider light therapy. There are several devices available, such as battery powered visors, portable light boxes, special light bulbs, and dawn simulators (lamps that switch on before dawn and gradually light your room, like the sun rising).
It is also very important to stay connected with others. As the weather changes, we all seem to go back indoors and, too often, this isolation contributes to feelings of depression and anxiety. Don’t “hibernate.” Reach out to family and friends or support groups. Also, treat yourself to some fun without guilt. Take a trip, buy those shoes, see that movie, get a massage… pamper yourself and have fun doing it!In my particular case, I struggle with agitation and restlessness when it gets dark early. In the longer months, I typically spend those early evening hours outdoors being active. Since I don’t do well in cold weather with my health issues (dystonia and chronic pain), it’s tough for me to be outside during these hours especially when it gets dark at 4:30 or 5:00 PM. I find myself getting very down and feeling a little lost at those times. I had to find a way to fill this time that I usually spend doing other things.
What I began doing was planning my day so that between the hours of 5 to 7:00 PM before I have dinner, I do some form of exercise or stretching or other self-care activities, or some kind of hobby. Doing this on a regular basis has made a tremendous difference in my overall emotional well-being, but also my physical health by focusing more of my attention on taking care of my body, specifically the symptoms of dystonia.
I hope some of these ideas help and if you have anything that you do during this time of the year that you find helpful, please share it in the comments. Thank you very much and have a safe and fun Fall and Winter season!
Tom Seaman is a Certified Professional Life Coach in the area of health and wellness, and the author of 2 books: Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey and Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges. He is also a motivational speaker, chronic pain and dystonia awareness advocate, health blogger, volunteer for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) as a support group leader, and is a member and volunteer writer for Chronic Illness Bloggers Network, The Mighty, Brain & Life Magazine, and Patient Worthy. To learn more about Tom, get a copy of his books (also on Amazon), or schedule a free life coaching consult, visit www.tomseamancoaching.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dystoniabook1 and Instagram.