Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Some Thoughts on Seasonal Affective Disorder



I was eighteen years old when I was diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I was in my first winter of university and felt I wasn't quite handling life with the same verve, capability and energy as my new friends. While they appeared to run on batteries that never drained, I felt shattered all the time, thought about hiding in my bed even more than is normal for your average student, and in fact, felt miserable. Not knowing why made me even more miserable. I even joked that perhaps I'd been a badger in a previous life - after all, I really identified with the impulse to feed myself up then crawl into a warm safe place and shut down until the blossom was on the trees. I didn't realise that I was right - I was trying to get my brain to work in tune with the demands of the modern day lifestyle, while my body wanted to make like my ancestors and feed up, be active for the short daylight hours, then sleep whenever it was dark. It seemed I was fighting my own chronobiology. (Word of the day for you there). 

Diagnosis was a relief because it meant that a) it wasn't anything too serious (in my case), and something I could quite definitely handle myself without medication, and b) I was normal. I had been worried until that point that the student life wasn't for me, that I was in some way not cut out for it.



Life continued, as it does, and to be honest, I didn't take the disorder too seriously. I noticed it, alright. I noticed that by October everything from doing the laundry to getting up in the morning became much, much harder work. I noticed that I craved sugary food and hot drinks almost constantly, felt more dopey - less switched on in my work. I noticed that I seemed to crawl through the days and weeks, feeling frustrated because I'd fall into bed every night having lived exactly the same, unproductive, shattering day as the one before. I obsessed over silly mistakes, worried even more than usual and lost the ability to concentrate without monumental effort. But I suppose although I'd had a proper diagnosis I didn't want to acknowledge the disorder as a real presence, something that very much dominates half my year and needed dealing with.



I'm not sure what changed. Perhaps I finally got fed up with feeling constantly tired, lethargic and frustrated with myself for never achieving all I wanted to each day. I remember being surprised when work colleagues would ask, say on a Wednesday, what I would be doing with my evening. Doing with my evening? Isn't being at work all day enough? 

It began to feel as though my twenties were slipping away, and I wasn't filling my days with all the fun stuff I'd imagined. In fact, I was losing half of each year to SAD and spending the other half trying to get the right amount of daylight vs. too much sun exposure, and recovering from the winter. That's half of my entire life. I was also irritated, because I actually really love autumn and winter. I look forward to the leaves falling, warm woolly jumpers, boots and gloves, Bonfire Night and Christmas and snow and hot chocolate. Having to dread the colder months because it meant putting life on hold until the spring wasn't an option. 

So in 2011 I started to take SAD more seriously. To be grown up about it, and to view it as a presence which visits each year, but with the right attitude, something which can be accommodated and can even help me to live a healthier lifestyle. 


You may be wondering why I decided to write about this topic on a blog which is primarily about crafts, creativity and splashings of vintage. Well first of all, it's thought that the numbers of sufferers of SAD are really quite high here in the northern hemisphere. For some it's a case of feeling a little down, more sleepy than usual. For others it's full blown, debilitating, life-ruining depression. Famous gardener Monty Don, for example, suffers terribly (interesting article here, by the way). I thought that if any of you reading this might identify with any of what I'm saying, you may be able to do something about it. Simple. Second, if you're a regular reader of this 'ere weblog we probably have a fair few interests in common. In which case you'll identify with number 3 below:

How I Deal With SAD

1. Don't be a llama like I was. Take it seriously. SAD doesn't mean you're going to spend half of every year on anti-depressants (some sufferers do need them, but for most it isn't necessary). A few lifestyle changes should help you through.




2. I do have a lightbox. I'm not entirely convinced it works, but then I'll take the placebo effect. I like to pop mine on first thing in the morning as it helps me wake up if nothing else. Read about those here

3. CREATIVITY. I actually feel at my least creative at this time of year. Or I come up with ideas, but lack the motivation and energy required to bring them to fruition. But being creative - or doing whatever it is that you love - will go a long, long way in helping you. SAD is one of the main reasons I started Creatives Unite. Take advantage! I can't put into words just how much this blog and crafts help me feel more energised and give me purpose and confidence at a time when I usually feel worthless, miserable and worn out. Whether it's gardening like Monty Don, painting, crochet, writing or playing the ukulele, make time in your day for it. It's the perfect excuse, after all. 

I'll stop carping on in a minute

4. Get outside whenever you can. It seems obvious, I know, but it's the single most important thing you can do. It's no coincidence that I started dealing with my SAD better when I got myself a dog. Bea makes me get outside in the fresh air and daylight every day, without fail. If I had a day where I couldn't be bothered, she'd suffer. If you don't have a dog, borrow one, or get yourself a walking buddy and hold each other accountable. If you struggle to get out in the daylight during the working day even ten minutes during your lunch break helps. Then at weekends get outside as much as possible, come rain or shine. Gardening's actually a really good one because it helps you work alongside nature - after all, fighting it is one of the main reasons folk suffer from SAD. This January seems to be lacking that very bright crisp sunlight we usually get, so it's even more important. The exercise will work wonders too. Speaking of which...




5 Exercise. Or, to rephrase - be active. SAD makes me want to curl up on the sofa or in my bed and not wake up until March. I feel sluggish and cold and the last thing I want to do is grab my shorts and a cold bottle of water and hop on the exercise bike. So I don't try. Nowadays I go to jive classes with a friend once a week. I'm so busy giggling and trying to remember the steps I don't realise I'm exercising. I walk Bea every day, even if it's dark out. I try and do some yoga at home several days a week too. Stretching my muscles and doing the poses at my own pace is something I can manage even when I feel lethargic. The meditation time also gives me an excuse to imagine myself on sunny beaches and in summer meadows - perfect for convincing the brain that it's not really winter after all. (Heat wave!) Failing all that, I pop some cheesy music on my iPod and dance around the house with the hoover. Trust me, everyone does it. 

My partner in SAD thrashing.
Having a furry friend who doesn't know how not to be happy really helps!

6. Food. In the warmer months I truly love a good salad and lots of fruit. But in the winter I feel the cold, and the idea of sinking my teeth into chilly vegetation doesn't always appeal. This year I'm making more of an effort to eat hot food packed with vegetables instead. I get a Graze box once a week, and drink fruit teas when I'm at work. I also have a fruit smoothie with spirulina most days. SAD - and winter in general - makes us crave fatty, salty foods, so it's about making sure I feel full without eating rubbish that will make me more sluggish and sleepy. (That said, I never want it written on this blog that a slice of cake or a stodgy pud every now and again won't do you the world of good. Just not every day.) 

7. Make the most of your more productive hours. Once I prise myself out of bed I am actually a morning person, so I make sure I get all the boring stuff that must be done out of the way in the mornings. If it's not a working day I use the time when I'm more sleepy in an afternoon to go out for a walk, or do active stuff like housework. Feeling down can mean a lot of procrastination, which leads to frustration and feeling more down, so I try to stop it creeping in and work to my own rhythm as much as my working day allows. 



8. Lastly - and this is a new thing for me that I've just brought in with the new year - I've given myself a bedtime. I feel like I'm about eight again, but it seems to be working. Getting enough sleep and having a good sleep routine help to curb the sleepiness and lethargy during the day. I also try to get up at the same time every day, even if I'm craving that Sunday lie in. I get up, head straight for the kettle, then spend the lie in time crafting instead. 

I really hope this post has given you some ideas for beating SAD if you think you may be a sufferer (check out my SAD Pinterest board for more inspiration), but let's face it, January and February can be difficult for everyone. No money, getting up in the dark, cold weather and illnesses flying around can make even the most sunny personality feel a little blue. One thing we can all be sure of - Spring always arrives. Bulbs seem to be sprouting early this year, and before you know it we'll be stripping off that third scarf, raising our faces to the sun and giving a whopping sigh of relief. It's a magical feeling every year. 



Over the next couple of weeks I hope to feature a few different recipes and food ideas I use at this time of year to feel comforted and full, but without stuffing myself with the sugar and fat I crave. 

If you've made it this far, thank you for reading, and if any of the above sounds familiar, I hope this post can help. Now go and create something!







PS: If you suspect you may suffer from SAD, rather than just a touch of the January blues, do read this on the Mind website. Also, allow me to sound like your mother and tell you to see your GP if you're not sure whether you have depression. It could be part of SAD, or it could not, but both need taking seriously.

PPS: The photos on this walk were taken on an awful day where I had wanted to take some craft project photos for this blog, but it never really got light in the house (any other bloggers having this problem?) I took Bea for a walk instead and found that there is always something to photograph after all. 

32 comments:

  1. Very interesting blog post Anna! I can relate to a lot of what you've talked about. If I don't get outside, I just feel tired and groggy all day, which isn't fun. Having a canine friend is the best medicine in my opinion! They're constantly happy and are the best excuse for getting outside everyday! Xx

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    1. Hooray for dogs! They don't know how therapeutic they are. Actually, I think Bea does, which is why she demands treats a lot :) x

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  2. Alison Hodgson (fluffy_duckling)9 January 2013 07:52

    Thanks so much for this blog post Anna, you've managed to put into words exactly how I feel at this time of year! It's always good to realise you're not alone in experiencing something (I often feel I'm surrounded by people who seem totally unaffected by the winter!)
    Getting back into crafting through creatives unite has really helped me in the winter when there isn't much to do in the garden/allotment (really interesting to read that Monty Don suffers too).
    I can relate to all your tips for feeling better, but I'll confess to not always following them this year! So you've inspired me to get out there and feel better. x

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    1. I tend to find I notice people displaying similar symptons to me and wonder whether they've noticed! But you're right, others seem to sail through making some of us feel like we're just not managing to keep up.

      I am really, really delighted that CU helps you - let's work together to keep ourselves cheery until Spring is here! x

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  3. Thank you for this super blog. Mr G has SAD, and I'm off work with mental health issues (but well on road to recovery),and I can see all your points are very sound. Please may I 'borrow' the picture with the fungus as a basis for one of my pictures?

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    1. Really pleased you're getting better Alison, and you can certainly borrow the picture. x

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  4. Thanks for sharing Anna. I didn't know too much about SAD until I read your post. However I suffer from depression and I found I can relate to all your advice, especially number 3 which is a biggy of course :) All the best to you for the rest of the winter.

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    1. The big benefit of SAD is that most of us are able to look forward to the warmer months with confidence that we'll feel better - unless it comes part and parcel with stress and depression, of course, so although I can identify with those who have depression, I'm sorry it's a feature of your life all year round. I hope creativity helps, and that others suffering in any way find that 'thing' that they love enough for it to keep them going. x

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  5. A beautifully put together post. I can relate to what you say but I suffer this way in the summer with the sun so winter for me has the opposite effect (though the continuous dismal, dark and drizzling days have been very depressing). My spirits lift with the cold and droop with the sun. Dogs, any animals, always have a healing effect whatever your mood and a camera always helps when walking too as you concentrate on nature, which also heals. Your photos are beautiful - nature , even on a dismal day is stunning.

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    1. Being the pale creature that I am I need to be careful in the sun, but it's just as important for me to get plenty of it, too! Thank goodness for dogs and their cheerful attitude towards life :) x

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  6. Hi, do you take Vitamin D supplements? I have a Vit D deficiency and have found by taking it during thee winter months I've more energy, it can be very debilitating not having enough energy. Glad you're managing your health so well! :) x

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    1. Hi Ada, I have had a vitamin D spray recommended, but must admit I haven't taken the plunge and tried it yet. It's good to know it's working for you so I'll give that some thought, thank you. x

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  7. This is a really great post. I am sure that everyone feels the effects of SAD to a greater or lesser extent. Talking about it can only help as with any form of depression, raising awareness is important. I forget the amount of times I have admitted to someone that I suffered from post-natal depression and their response has been yes - so did I! Your tips are excellent. Thank you and good luck to you maintaining your positive attitude. :)

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    1. Thank you, and you're right, these things are suprisingly common. Colleagues at work are used to me seeking out sunny patches in the office and basking like a cat for a few moments, and before I knew it others were saying they feel the same as me during the winter! x

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  8. Great post - and good tips for surviving Winter for everyone!

    I have the same problem with blog photos at the moment (well, all photos really), it is very frustrating!

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    1. It is, isn't it! I keep finding that when the sun does appear I'm not ready to take the photos! At least it's a good way to stretch my photography skills and imagination :) x

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  9. Very interesting post! Thanks so much for sharing.
    Marcella x

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  10. WOW!!! This is amazing. I totally now understand why I want to curl up and die during the winter!!
    You are a legend.

    Thanks

    Em

    yorkshirepud123.blogspot.com

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    1. Aha, hopefully you'll be able to fight back now! Glad it helped :) x

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  11. Such good advice in this post, thank you Anna.

    I suspect with so little sunlight this winter half the UK has a touch of SAD but my son is a sufferer and I have to be careful about getting out in daylight too.

    Let's hope the sun returns soon!

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    1. I think you may be right, Annie - it has been particularly dark so far, and my way of dealing with SAD can only do good for sufferers and non-sufferers alike (we should have a national bed time, complete with bedtime story on the radio, read by someone soothing, like Stephen Fry!)

      x

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  12. You've written this post so very well. Even people without SAD would get some great advise so surviving these horrible winter months. Beautiful pictures of Bea too.
    Rosie xx

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    1. Thanks Rosie. It helps me to imagine our ancestors, who would have risen with the dawn and gone to bed as soon as it got dark. When I think about that, it's no wonder there's so many of us who feel like we're fighting nature all the time - whether it's actual SAD or just a case of feeling fed up with going to work and coming home in the dark. x

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  13. Your post really struck a chord with me, I had tears in my eyes. Since leaving my home country for the UK I have suffered with SAD. My first winter was the worst as I did not know what had hit me. SAD is almsot unknown where I come from. The climate is not really warmer but it is sunnier and the luminosity is much brighter. I have learnt to live with it but it leads to some really bad bouts of homesickness when it strikes. Crafting and reading are life savers for me, as well as my sunlight desk lamp, as I spend a long time in front of my computer every day. And my adorable husband and my pets :-) Thank you so much for posting this.

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    1. Oh Ellie. I really do love living in the UK, but you're right, dark winters (or summers) can cause so many problems! I look around the countryside when on dog walks at this time of the year and think how beautiful it all is, and how lucky we are, but just wish the light would improve so I could have more energy. Glad to hear the sunlight desk lamp works for you, and that you have a supportive family too - makes all the difference. x

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    2. The countryside is gorgeous, and this is why I try to get out and about as much as possible too. Now I need to convince my husband to get our very own version of Bea to force me to get out of bed and be active during these lethargic days :-) (I have a cat and house rabbits and guinea pigs, so not much exercising here !)

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  14. Love this post. I have read several articles before about SAD but this winter has been hard :( I will be using these tips as I've been in bed all day with no motivation for anything at all!

    Xxx

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    1. It has been a particularly hard winter so far, Hana. Get out of bed, pop some music on and have a daft boogie and a cuppa. Tomorrow's a new day and although we can't stop SAD affecting us, we can help lessen the effects. Lots of luck! x

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  15. I am sorry to hear you struggle with SAD Anna, but it is great you have been able to share your experience on your lovely blog, it will clearly help others.

    I have had to give myself a bedtime too, so that I can control my migraines a little more. Getting up at the same time every day is a bit odd at weekends, but like you I find the crafting helps.

    Stay healthy and happy xx

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  17. Thanks for sharing your experience with SAD, I don't suffer from it but I think everyone struggles with the lack of daylight at this time of year to a certain extent. I don't have a dog but I know that having dogs has helped my mum over the years. My daily cycle to work and running at the weekend helps me to get out in the daylight. I love the post-run high if I can find the motivation to get out there in the first place.

    Thanks for sharing your tips.

    Take care x

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