This month I've been helping the charity, Mind,update their website information on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and was also invited to write the following blog post. A shortened version also features here.
It all begins in the autumn.
I know it’s coming around the time the clocks change in October. In the weeks leading up to the clocks going back I start to feel sluggish and down, it’s harder to keep to my morning routine of going out for a walk before breakfast because it’s wet and cold and dark. Then, the clocks go back and I have a little reprieve because it’s suddenly lighter again in the morning and I feel more ‘alive’ as I can get up early and get outside again. It doesn’t last long, but I’m lifted again temporarily until nature catches up with both ends of the day.
I start going to bed very, very early from when the clocks go back through to the start of spring. I’m usually asleep before 8pm most nights. 9pm is an incredibly late night for me. This means I have basically no social life at all! Even just something as simple as enjoying a film in bed with my husband after work is impossible as I’m ready to go to sleep just after dinner. By December, I can be in bed as early as 6.30pm absolutely shattered mentally and physically and I know the best cure is just to go to sleep and to hope my sleep cycle isn’t so out of kilter I find myself wide awake at 3 or 4am – those too-early-even-for-a-morning-person mornings aren’t good for the soul.
Until l learned to embrace seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and due to this rather wonky sleep cycle, I use to often find myself wide awake, agitated and anxious because the day hadn’t begun. I would wait around in silence at home for the day to start – not wanting to put the radio on or make any noise for fear of waking up my husband or neighbours. It felt so frustrating because early mornings are my favourite time and the knock-on effect was that I’d been awake for so long it felt like the day was nearly over by lunchtime. In the warmer, lighter summer months I could get outside and begin the day at 4am, but in winter I’d feel like a dead battery and just want to hide myself away from the world and could easily spend all day in my sanctuary of bed, warmth, dog and books.
It’s not all literal doom and gloom however – even if the dark mornings persist. I’ve learned to live with this and adapt. I keep a daily diary and it’s helpful to look back over the years and see how each year I’ve felt the downward spiral starting. I realise it’s not anything I can fight against – it’s something that’s natural to me and it’s better to go with the flow. I’m a morning person, and mornings make me so happy. So now I get up early, wrap up warm, put on my pedometer and walk in the dark and enjoy the solitude. I can’t walk in my spring/summer-time places beside the river or in the woods as it’s too dark, so instead I try to enjoy the solitude the darkness gives me, and I walk under the street lights where I live – looking up at the stars and the moon and try to enjoy the feeling of being the only person up and out at this early hour while the rest of the world is tucked up in bed. By the time people are up and about, I’m back home having walked a good few miles and feel so much better for it. I no longer wallow in my own grumpiness or pace the house in silence at 4am. Instead, I’ve learned to embrace the change from light to darkness, but it isn’t easy all the time, and when it gets icy or snowy and I really can’t get outside for those moonlit walks I feel my mood slipping and it’s hard to bring it back up again. I crave routine and structure and a week of snow and ice can bring havoc to my serenity.
So what else have I learned? Well, I’ve learned to love (and I mean capital letter LOVE) cancelled plans. In the past, I’ve tried to act like a Normal Person and be sociable in the evenings or weekends. In a moment of yes-I-can-do-this positivity, I’ve got ahead of myself and made plans with friends on a Friday evening for “early” dinner at 6pm…I think just about every time I’ve had to cancel or have been literally overjoyed when they’ve had to cancel for some reason. I just can’t stay awake and the thought of having to go out and make conversation…. Noooo! I. Need. Bed.
Now, I don’t even try to go out in the evenings so there’s no beating myself up when I have to make wafer-thin excuses to dear, patient loved ones for the umpteenth time. If SAD could be reduced to some simple maths equation, it would look something like Social life + Winter = Impossible. With the caveat of Morning Coffee + Winter = Doable On a Good Day.
I’ve learned a few other things too. Such as SAD lamps are a great idea but if you suffer from migraines (raises her hand) they can bring one on really quickly. Also, that January and February are by far the worst months. December is dark but the festive lights and cheerfulness are an antidote and I now put up my Christmas decorations really early (1st December) as a way of coping with my SAD symptoms and stretching out the ‘fairy-light antidote” for a whole month. However, when all the festive cheer has gone, I can find January and February really tough…especially if it’s cold and if it’s impossible to get out for a walk then I just want to stay in bed with my electric blanket, dog, books, laptop and lots of comfort food and tea. Even getting outside in the dark for my early morning walk is hard during these months – SAD can make me crave solitude even more than usual – if I see a silhouette walking towards me, perhaps an early dog walker, I have to turn around and walk away. It can be hard sometimes to break the silence even with a ‘hello’ to a person whose face I can’t even see. If you’re reading this and you know me you probably won’t believe it because when I choose to be sociable (again, the Morning Coffee + Winter = Doable caveat) I’m actually rather chirpy and probably come across as an extrovert. Ah, if only they knew!
I’ve also learned that something peculiar happens come spring time: I become rather hyperactive. I love spring – I absolutely love the signs of spring in nature and I want to be outside all the time. I start feeling less tired in the evening and can stay awake past 9pm. By May-start of June I’m still awake by 10.30-11pm and am wide awake about 4am again. My mind is buzzing with ideas, I feel sociable and suddenly start making plans and getting in touch with people to meet up etc… I feel more confident about myself and I am fuelled to get out of my comfort zone professionally and personally and I feel so…alive. I exercise lots and am full of ideas and creativity and it gets so much I wake up lots through the night just buzzing with everything…I burn the candles at both ends and can do so because I’m aware it’s just a temporary busyness because….
I’ve also learned that mid-summer, around the Solstice…. I’m hit by the lethargy bus again. It comes out of nowhere and I’m so sleepy I tend to blame it on some strange otherwise-symptomless form of hay fever. I suddenly rediscover my love of the siesta. I close the curtains in the evening and wish it was dark so I could go to bed early but it’s broad daylight, 8pm and I can hear people outside and I feel like I’m wasting the fine, long days by staying indoors and going to bed. Unlike spring, when I’m full of energy and feeling very sociable, summer sees me withdrawing again into nature. I spend as much time as I can just me, my dog, a rucksack and a walk ahead of me. A quiet spot for coffee with my book. I’m happy in my own little world – in summer comes solitude and I sleep and spend time in nature as much as I can.
Come autumn, the start of September, and I feel better physically. I have more energy. (This is not because of the temperatures – the above pattern happens whatever the weather). I feel more sociable again – I am like a ‘normal’ person for one season of the year! Then the clocks go back…and we’re back where we started again!
I definitely have learned to live with the ebb and flow of the seasons. I now think it’s a way of living which connects me to nature, and I don’t see SAD as a ‘disorder’ – just a way of being. The charity, Mind, gives some useful information and advice for people who are particularly affected by the changing seasons:
Make the most of natural light. We know that being outdoors throughout the winter doesn’t cure SAD because people who work outside also experience SAD symptoms. However, it is still worth taking the opportunity to be exposed to natural light when possible. Small changes – like going outdoors around midday or on bright days, wearing sunglasses a bit less (if it is safe to do so) and having pale colours within the home to reflect light – can all be useful.
Many people find that they are more likely to experience stress in winter. If you find this time of year difficult, try to plan ahead to reduce your number of stressful or difficult activities during this time. Plan the more stressful events for summer where possible, particularly major ones such as changing jobs or moving home.
You may want to discuss your symptoms with your employer to try to minimise the pressures on you in the winter months. This is a very personal decision and not all people experiencing mental health problems choose to disclose them at work. Equally, your employer has responsibilities to assist you, including making 'reasonable adjustments' where appropriate.
Try to keep physically active during the winter. While you may not feel like it at the time, physical activity can be very effective in lifting your mood and increasing your energy levels. It doesn’t have to be anything particularly strenuous – doing housework, gardening or going for a gentle walk, if you are able to, can all help. Supplementing with extra vitamin B12 or a Vitamin D may also be helpful.
If you can afford it, a holiday to a sunnier climate is likely to reduce symptoms. However, you may find that on returning to the UK your SAD will temporarily become much worse. It seems that the contrast in light levels can sometimes do more harm than good, so if you have any doubts check with your GP before going away.
Using a light box – a specialist device containing very bright fluorescent tubes – has been found to be an effective treatment for SAD because it increases your exposure to light during the winter months. Light boxes are usually at least 10 times the intensity of household lights. They are available in different strengths and sizes – for SAD, a strength of at least 2,500 lux is recommended but many people find 10,000 lux to be most effective. Occasionally people report side effects from using a light box, such as headaches. Changing your position may help but if problems persist, you should stop using it. However, in my own experience, if you have existing eye problems or suffer from migraines you should check with your optician that a light box is safe for you to use. If you use a light box regularly, you should tell your optician and make sure that you have an annual eye check-up.
Finally, don’t feel you should be the same all year-round. We are part of nature – but sometimes we forget this and feel we should be the same throughout the year. Embrace your cyclical nature, take time out when needed, hibernate a little, go to bed in the afternoon if you can do, say no thank you to that social invitation if you really don’t want to go. Find what brings you comfort and joy and make sure you include a bit of that in your life every single day.
For more information and support see www.mind.org.uk