Thoughts on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD 1): Preparation
I mentioned in my post on November Writing Goals that I wanted to blog a bit about SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), because it’s that time of year again. For those of you unclear on what SAD is, it’s other names are Winter Depression or Winter Blues; essentially, the shorter days can lead to depression (with major depressive episodes), lack of productivity, mental cloudiness, fatigue, and — one of the worst things for me — a severe difficulty getting out of bed in the morning.
I usually begin to feel SAD very, very soon after the switch back to Standard Time in late October. It’s a pretty jarring change each year even when I prepare for it, because Edinburgh gets around 6 hours of daylight in winter, and at the solstice, the sun sets at about 3:40PM. Which is probably quite lovely to people from places that get even less daylight, but I think most people feel a bit of a slump in winter even if they don’t have a full onset of SAD.
Each year I’ve come up with better ways of combating SAD, and last year was when I felt the most “normal” in all the time I’ve lived in Scotland. But I learn a bit more each winter, so I thought I would share my preparations for this year.
One of the things I learned last year is how important sticking to a schedule is. I relax my schedule during the summer months because the amount of daylight makes it easier for me to get everything done. I have to be uncompromising with my time in winter.
If this all sounds very serious, it’s because it is. Getting out of bed is one of the most challenging aspects of SAD and is generally the source of my negative SAD feelings (See my “winter coat of SAD” entry).
It’s particularly challenging as someone who works from home because my hours are set by me. If SAD begins to take control of my days, my writing suffers for it. And the worst part is that only increases feelings of shame and guilt (I talk about this a bit in the previous linked entry), which compounds the effects of SAD.
I have 3 alarms set to wake me up. (before any of you start feeling sorry for poor Mr. May: I wear a FitBit, so these are all silent alarms; the wrist band vibrates to wake me up). 3 is a bit excessive, I know. But it’s literally that difficult for me to wake up and get out of bed when I have SAD. The 3rd alarm is set to the time I know I absolutely need to get out of bed by, so if I wake up for either of the first 2, I’m already ahead of schedule.
I also have a strict bedtime, so I don’t throw off my wake up time. Waking up around sunrise is definitely best; those early daylight hours are really important to experience so SAD doesn’t affect me as much throughout the day.
Even in the cold weather, I try to go outside for at least 15-20 minutes every day (when the sun is highest in the sky is best) for light therapy. Light therapy was one of the first things that helped me feel better during winter, so I always make time for it. I find going on a short walk outdoor to be the most effective, because it combines the therapy with a bit of exercise.
Sometimes the weather makes this really, really difficult, so I have a SAD lamp. SAD lamps are a fantastic investment for those with winter depression, especially if daytime walks may not be enough to combat the initial onset. I used to get seasonal depression so badly that I needed both daily. I still use both on days when I’m feeling particularly sluggish because even short sessions (15 minutes or so) really make a difference.
This is the lamp I use, which is from Lumie. The panel is fairly large and the light is very, very bright. Light therapy recommends looking just below the lamp (not directly at it) for the retinal therapy, but what I love doing is sitting in front of it and closing my eyes. I can feel the heat of the lamp and the light is so bright that it filters through my eyelids, and it’s realllly very relaxing. 🙂
Endorphins really do help combat SAD. I don’t get the “runner’s high” that a lot of people talk about, but I do feel a lot better if I keep a consistent workout schedule. I have one throughout the year, but it’s more difficult to stay motivated in the winter because it’s cold, because SAD wants to keep me in bed all day, and because SAD can make me so so so so drained and unmotivated.
One of the things my therapist told me when I was in CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) last year for SAD was, “Find a reason to get out of bed in the morning.” Exercise in my reason. Just to be clear, I am not a happy morning exerciser; I am a begrudging morning exerciser. If I put a trip to the gym off for later in the day, I probably won’t go and that will trigger a shame spiral (one of the more depressive aspects of SAD) where I feel even less motivated.
So after I wake up in the morning, I eat a quick breakfast and go to the gym. I’ve gone 5 days a week since the beginning of October. Right now I’m doing a 5-day lifting split (to work a different part of the body each day), followed by 30 minutes of cardio. One day a week, I try to do something outdoor focused (hiking, usually). So six days of exercise, and one day for rest. Rest days are important, too.
Because SAD can have so many low days, the first thing I reach for is comfort food. And winter comfort food really is amazing, isn’t it? Pumpkin pie. Cookies. Apple pie. Eggnog. Shortbread! Aaand then I start feeling really lethargic from eating poorly, which leaves me vulnerable to the effects of SAD.
Eating well is always important, but even more so for those with SAD because of the serious effect it has on energy levels. I did very well with the types of food I ate last year, and I’d like to do better this year. I’ve been very carefully organizing my meals so they’re balanced and healthy and energy-boosting (fruits, vegetables… a lot of lentils because I’ve just discovered how wonderful dhal is!), but with some treats, too. I don’t like to cut out the comfort foods entirely. After all, what’s winter without shortbread and mulled wine? 😉
I’m still working on this one. I already struggle quite a bit from anxiety, and I notice how my thought patterns change with SAD. It’s so easy to be hard on myself for not writing enough, or for struggling to get out of bed, or for missing an exercise day and spending the extra hours on the couch. So so easy.
The shaming aspects of SAD can easily trigger low periods that can get out of control (I call them “shame spirals”, which are the major depressive episodes. They’re difficult to describe but Allie Brosh does it beautifully in “Adventures in Depression“) and make depressive episodes even more difficult to overcome.
Which is why self-forgiveness is so important. I try to tell myself that it’s OK to have bad days. It’s OK if I can’t make it to the gym, or if I spend an extra hour in bed, or have a piece of cake instead of an apple. It’s OK because I’m human and I’m not a machine and I am never going to be on point 100% of the time. It’s OK it’s OK it’s OK. (and accepting that is really, really difficult sometimes.)
Easier said than done, but I’m still trying. Self-forgiveness is always a work-in-progress, even outside of SAD.
Insofar as SAD progression, I haven’t felt the depressive aspects yet, but I’m definitely noticing my concentration waning a bit. It took me more time than usual to write out this blog, for example. I think I might have to fall back on the trusty Pomodoro Technique to get back into some serious work.
But so far, I’ve been good at getting out of bed at a reasonable hour with little difficulty, so I’m very happy with that!
Until next time!
xx Elizabeth May