Seasonal Affective Disorder

There’s No Need To Be So SAD

Lonely girl and a beautiful view

Behaviour expert Dr Pam Spurr writes for Action on Depression about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

I used to feel quite miserable as autumn evenings started to close in. It wasn’t simply the feeling many people get as summer ends – like wishing summer could just last longer – it was worse and felt like life was closing in on me. Try as I might I couldn’t shake these annual feelings that included a strange sense of ‘loss’ despite not losing anybody so to speak.

It was when I described these feelings to a colleague at a London teaching hospital that she suggested it might be seasonal affective disorder (SAD). At that time, 17 years ago, there was far less information around about SAD and it wasn’t my specialty area of psychology anyway.

Thankfully her thoughts pointed me in the right direction and I was relieved when reading some of the research that I finally had an explanation for these feelings that struck every autumn leaving me depressed. Especially as the rest of the year I was absolutely fine.

There is a whole range of possible symptoms associated with SAD that leave a sufferer feeling discombobulated. Particularly when someone is normally an upbeat person like I am, they can’t fathom why they want to curl up and hibernate. Other common symptoms include wanting to binge on comfort foods like chips, rich pasta dishes, and anything with heaps of melted cheese, when the rest of the year a sufferer might eat a much better diet.

Unfortunately SAD sufferers often don’t realise what’s happening to them and sometimes find their GPs unsympathetic. Some GPs are skeptical about SAD, essentially telling their patients to pull their socks up. Thankfully others will do a full analysis of what’s happening and rule out any reactive depression [perhaps to a divorce or bereavement] and then talk about instigating a positive regime for treating SAD.
It’s also not surprising for loved ones to be at a loss to explain why their once vibrant partner, family member or friend becomes a sullen stranger. Again they’re likely to suggest the person pulls their socks up not realising it may be SAD.

SAD strikes at different times between individuals. Some experience it from September through the autumn months with it disappearing in December as I do. Others find it only starts with true winter in December and unfortunately for some they experience it right from the beginning of autumn until early spring.

It definitely varies in its severity and can be crippling for some and bewildering for the many who don’t understand their unhappiness. Because the symptoms are varied I do understand why some GPs are skeptical.

Your symptoms might include feelings of sadness that are inexplicable because nothing has happened like, say, a divorce or bereavement. Many say they feel anxiety as well as despair. You’re likely to have sleep disturbance being restless at night, then it’s hard to drag yourself out of bed, and you feel sloth-like during the day. You may experience appetite changes with cravings for comfort foods or sweets.

Other unpleasant symptoms include listlessness and lacking interest in things you normally enjoy. Memory and concentration might suffer and you reread articles, pages in a book, or lose the thread of a TV programme. “Sex?” you ask yourself, “what’s that?” as desire diminishes, though you may crave reassuring cuddles. Unfortunately SAD tends to lower your immune response, too, and you catch every virus going.

There’s much you can do, as I’ve found. First see your GP to rule out anything else. For serious SAD you might be prescribed antidepressants as well as cognitive behavioural therapy. With any level of SAD though, the following are helpful:

Use daily light therapy. Purchase a light box online or at a high-street chemist – some health authorities rent them out. For the best results light boxes must produce 10,000 lux as it’s called. Mine’s on my desk for use first thing in the morning for an hour but there are desk lamp-styles available to use at work.

Devise a good sleep regime. Rather than using alcohol to help you sleep use a night-time herbal tea. Switch off technology at least 90 minutes before bedtime and resist napping during the day. Try a sunrise-mimicking alarm clock that gradually wakes you up.

Watch what you eat and resist cravings. Keep nourished with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and eat regular meals including mood-boosting foods like turkey and oily fish. Begin your day with mood-boosting porridge.

Take regular exercise, preferably something that lifts your mood like a dance or gym class. Get out for a daily walk when the sun comes out for some natural sunlight. Let your manager/colleagues know that you need to take advantage of sunlight.

Avoid extra stress. Know your limits and learn how to say No to excess responsibilities.

Most important of all don’t isolate yourself. Let loved ones know when your SAD sets in and that you’re putting in place an anti-SAD regime. Welcome any support and encouragement they can give you.

Visit Dr Pam Spurr’s own page

For more information visit The Seasonal Affective Disorder Association and a big thanks to Dr Pam Spurr for writing this very informative article for us.