Winter is coming, and so is my Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). As someone who thrives in the warmer months of the years, this is how I identify, acknowledge, and cope with it.
Every winter, as the sun leaves us earlier and the chill sets in, I reacquaint myself with a yearly foe — Seasonal Affective Disorder. More commonly – and quite appropriately! – acronymised as SAD.
In the tropical climes of India, this hasn’t always been obvious to me. I have been a summer girl all my life, and I honestly believed that my preference for May-June weather made winter months seem blue in comparison.
There are lots of ways one can reason the self out of believing that one is suffering, even in the mildest of ways. I am no stranger to this. It’s just that the cold is bothersome, I rationalised in the past. I just don’t like how gloomy it gets in December, I argued for years.
But all this whataboutery regarding my relationship with the tail-end of the year came to its own tale end when I went to England for my postgraduate studies.
There, as the sun set at 4PM, and my computer automatically switched back and forth for daylight savings, I realised that it was not that I liked summer better. It was more than that. And it was affecting my studies.
The time had come to confront my annual foe.
Note: While I have been in therapy, I am not generalising SAD or giving you advice that you should follow. What worked for me might not work for everyone. This is simply a resource to help you understand SAD better, and seek help yourself if needed.
Additionally, my experiences are also impacted by the fact that I have had the privilege of being able to access a good therapist, and have the support of my family to do so. Both of these are not easy to obtain in India.
Content warning: Mentions of suicidal ideation
(Continue reading below.)
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What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a variety of depression that is rooted in seasons and seasonal changes. It is bound by the entry and exit of specific seasons. More often than not, people experience SAD in autumn and winter months. It occurs less commonly in spring and summer.
Although different people experience it in differing strengths and capacities, its most identifiable characteristics are feeling low on energy, lacking motivation, and experiencing moodiness.
Because it pops up once a year, people tend to brush it off as seasonal blues. However, it can take the form of more serious symptoms such as loss of appetite, inability to sleep, persistent thoughts of worthlessness or guilt, and even thoughts about death or suicide.
Other markers include:
- Feeling depressed most of the day, almost every day
- Losing interest in activities that were once enjoyed
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having difficulty concentrating
(Source: Mayo Clinic)
If you experience a combination of any of these symptoms, do not ignore them or downplay their impact on your day-to-day life.
My SAD Story
Depending on where I am in the world, I tend to experience some or all of these symptoms.
In Pune, where I lived for several years during my undergraduate studies, I could not really identify any specific effects of SAD because I was at the peak of my more obvious Post-Traumatic Stress experience.
Yet, every winter, my thoughts of suicide would reach their zenith, and lack of sleep, appetite and self-worth lived rent-free in my headspace. But in the face of more pressing mental breakdowns, I didn’t really give these yearly spikes much thought.
But in Bath, where I studied for my Master’s degree, I felt them more keenly. Winters in the UK meant the sun set far too early (if it ever made an appearance, that is), and the bitter cold (even in the less impacted south-west of the landmass) often made getting out harder.
This really got to me.
How Did I Know I Have SAD?
Having been in therapy for a year before leaving for England, my mind was in a much better state than it had been in for several years. Which meant that a sudden swing in my moods, appetite, energy, and motivation was a stark contrast against my improved mental health.
For my Creative Writing degree, I was required to write a poem every week. And every week, without fail, I was unable to produce one until the very last minute. Even those rushed, pained poems were birthed under a cloud of guilt and hopelessness.
This sudden downturn of my mental health was concerning, and finally forced me to confront what I had been brushing under the rug. I had SAD. And it was affecting me.
The good news is that because I was in a better headspace, SAD notwithstanding, I immediately felt compelled to do something about it. The novel post-therapy desire to help myself pushed me to get medication that tackled my physiological deficiencies.
It also gave me an opportunity to work around the SAD, and focus on improving my moods and motivation levels.
Here are some things that helped me deal with SAD.
How You Can Deal With Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Acknowledge That You Are In A Fix
It is hard to admit that you are down in the dumps (or worse) because of a shift in seasons. Yet, like any other aspect of our mental health, the first step toward coping is looking the problem in the eye, and recognising that it exists.
Self-targeted stigma can be a huge detour in the journey to better mental health. Respect that you understand your own mind and headspace.
Recognise that you know yourself well enough to identify when something is off. It isn’t wrong to wonder why you suddenly feel crowded by feelings of worthlessness. There’s nothing bad about losing motivation, or your appetite. You are not foolish for realising that you seem to think about death more often, especially if you have been suicidal in the past.
SAD is nothing to beat yourself up about. Like every other mental health issue, it is something to identify, understand and deal with.
Consider Therapy (Or Medication)
Although the specific cause of SAD is unknown, seasonal changes disrupt your body and mind in a variety of ways. They can tamper with your body clock, because of the change in the sun’s rising and setting patterns and timings. They could also cause a change in your body’s levels of serotonin and melatonin.
By seeing a professional at least a few times, you can receive support, diagnosis, and possibly even medication that can help you cope with SAD.
I spoke to a doctor and was asked to take vitamin D and iron supplements, both of which had an impact on my lethargy and moods. This may not be the case for you.
You may be subjected to a physical check-up, blood tests, psychological evaluation, and other examination to reach a diagnosis. Treatment for SAD can include light therapy (phototherapy), stronger medication, and psychotherapy; depending on your case.
Organise Around Your Energy For The Affected Months
One of the ways in which I deal with winter-induced sluggishness is to hyper-organise myself. I am a planner by nature, and find it easier to follow through when I have self-imposed schedules during these months.
I ensure that I understand what work and engagements I am meant to do and keep during those months, and create an adaptable planning system that makes me feel organised. And therefore, it also helps me be as organised as possible.
I try to make up for my lack of motivation by using the occasional spurt of energy to do as much as possible. I know that when my energy dips alarmingly, I will find it hard to do anything. So when I can do, I do more than I usually would.
Planning and working when energetic are my two biggest strengths, especially when I am at work. I employ both liberally during winter months.
I also try to avoid spontaneity and ask that my family and friends avoid making sudden plans and throwing surprises. I know that these can impact my energy levels and mood, so I make sure they know.
Set Boundaries And Find A Confidante
I work hard (this comes easier with therapy) to not hide how I am feeling. This is not to say I treat every interaction as a confessional. I just don’t pretend as though I am perfectly fine.
I use my moodiness to its advantage by setting boundaries. I make people in my life aware that I am going through SAD, and ask them to help me through my mood swings and depressive downturns.
My family, for example, have not really spent a winter with me in years. This is the first they have me around since I have entered adulthood. So I have been open about my SAD, letting them know when I want to be alone and seeking them out when I want to talk.
And especially during winter months, I speak to my partner often, if not every day. It helps to be around someone who will take how you are feeling at face value, and won’t second-guess your own estimations of your headspace.
At work, I speak to my work friends more regularly, and they check in on me to make sure I am doing alright. They also offer help doing smaller tasks if I need it, and this sort of support can go a long way.
(Continue reading below.)
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Get Out, Exercise And Relax To Improve Energy Levels
I may not even have much of an opportunity to get outside these days, but I try to sit (and work) in the meager sun as much as I can. Making your work environment brighter is more or less a necessity for those who deal with winter-induced SAD.
Getting outside in light of any kind is better than sitting indoors, even on dreary days. To make sure I catch some light, I wake up earlier in winter so that I can have more time with the sun.
I am also not a very active person, so it is all the more important for me to move around. Even when I don’t feel like it. If I have to go nearby, I try to walk instead of going with everyone else in the car. Movement is good for the mind and body, and exercise of any kind can help improve your mood.
Conversely, I also actively try to relax my mind. Lethargy and a lack of motivation often leave my brain feeling foggy. I like to maintain mental hygiene by doing guided muscle relaxation on a nightly basis.
When you have Seasonal Affective Disorder, it is likely to announce its presence every year in some capacity without fail. It’s good to be prepared for its arrival, and hold on to any support mechanism that you have.
This could mean letting your therapist know that you might be returning on a yearly basis, or having your blood tested for deficiencies annually. It could mean focussing harder on self-care, by bathing more often, maintaining a stricter sleep schedule, and avoiding dependencies on substances like alcohol.
It could also mean meal planning, practicing stress management, socialising as and when you can, or even taking a trip to a warmer, sunnier place.
But most importantly, it means giving yourself the space to avoid the shame that usually comes with dealing with such things. Having SAD is nothing to be ashamed about, because it is not your fault.
You have to focus on coping, rather than letting shame occupy your mindspace. You deserve care and support. Don’t be afraid to reach out for them.
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