Tuesday, 1 April 2014

New Beginnings: An Update on Seasonal Affective Disorder

In January last year I wrote a post about Seasonal Affective Disorder. To my surprise lots of people have been in touch since, to tell me that they suffer from SAD too, or to say that they read this post and came to realise why it is that they feel like a different person during the dark winter months. I've come to a significant decision in my dealings with this disorder in the past week, so I thought now, as we emerge from another winter, might be as good a time as any to give you an update on how I've coped with it this year, and other little positive habits I've picked up in doing so.

You can read about my own past with SAD here. If you've not visited this subject with me before you'll find it helpful to read that first, then come back, (hello!) But just to clarify - for some people SAD can take the form of crippling, life halting depression during the darker months of the year. They can become suicidal even, and have no choice but to rely on anti-depressants to help them through until Spring. SAD does not manifest in that way for me. I have suffered mild depression in past years due to SAD - enough to make me very unhappy and feel the need to seek official diagnosis - but I cannot comment on what it's like to have chronic depression, and wouldn't even try to. I feel it's important to make that distinction for the sake of those who will tell you that this is a disorder that can be incredibly debilitating, so we must be aware that there is a spectrum of suffering.

Anyway, I'm pleased to say that the Autumn/Winter of 2013/14 has brought no symptoms of depression for me at all this year. I'm not sure why this is, whether it's the result of coping strategies or luck. I have felt down and frustrated at my lack of energy and productivity, but I could see that had a direct cause. The downside is that I have noticed feeling much, much more tired than in previous winters. That feeling of being a bit like a badger, the desperate need to crawl into bed and hibernate, has been particularly strong. I have felt physically tired, and wanted to sleep much more.

This isn't surprising, because if you think about it, this very wet, mild winter has meant that we haven't had that very bright winter sun in the mornings and at sunset. As much as I have appreciated not having to drive to work on icy roads, the absence of the sun that tends to accompany very cold days has meant that we in the UK have spent weeks at a time in dull grey light - the very worst for those of us who need as much sun exposure as we can get at that time of year.

I work full time, work part-time on the side and have a very active life around my work. While I have functioned in my jobs, I've really felt the need to ration other activities over the winter. I have never said no to a social activity, but it might mean that a coffee with a friend is all I do that day. I might spend the whole of Saturday on a day out, but it would be a few days before I scheduled anything else. I found myself doing this subconsciously, allowing gaps in my diary for recuperating and going to bed as early as I liked.

The side-symptom to this need for hibernation has been feeling mentally sluggish. I've been more forgetful, preoccupied and felt generally less on-the-ball than I would normally. I feel like I've dropped a fair few brain cells somewhere! This can feel very frustrating, and has meant high-concentration activities like driving and keeping track of ongoing projects at work have been more tiring. I've had to stop myself during tasks, to re-focus and step back and check what I'm doing. I've definitely been making more silly mistakes and felt more ditsy, and that has meant having more 'bad days' where I chastise myself and get annoyed that my brain won't work at full capacity.

So that's the negative. Onto the positive and my decision. You can read my post of last January to see how I cope year to year with SAD, and if you're starting to think you're a sufferer too I hope you'll find the tips useful. Here's what I've added this time round:

  • I have bought The World's Best Alarm Clock. I need to wake up at 6am every morning for work, and SAD sufferer or not, most people say it's the worst part of the day during the winter. This clock by Lumie starts to very gradually light up half an hour before my get up time, and wakes me with imitation daylight. No more being jerked awake by a harsh alarm, then having to fight to find the light switch before my body pulls me back into sleep again. No more tiredness headaches in the morning. Huzzah! It's a bloomin' expensive alarm clock, but has been the single best investment I have ever made for dealing with SAD (and mornings in general), because it works with my natural circadian rhythm. It's also going to help now that the clocks have gone forward an hour and mornings will be darker again for a while. It's not nearly so hard to get out of bed now. It also helps to have a dog who is very fond of breakfast.
  • Happy music in the car. Like many people I spend a lot of time every week in my car. I'm a morning person so the drive to work is usually okay, but the real danger when you have SAD is that it's either dark or getting dark when you're on your way home. Dark = drowsy. Drowsy = very dangerous. My most sleepy time of the day happens to be the time I need to be most alert. So it's happy, bouncy music only in my car during the winter! The boppier the better. It keeps me singing (badly), improves my mood, and keeps me awake. I also listen to lots of audiobooks on familiar journeys, to keep my brain ticking over (it's been quite nice, driving home through the rain, listening to Harry Potter, Enid Blyton and Paddington Bear, you should try it!), and I vary the route I take whenever I can. If you have the option of walking part-way or cycling to work, I'm sure that will make a big difference to your mood and energy levels. 
  • Wee Willie Winkie ain't got nothing on me. I don't care if it's only 9pm. If I'm so tired during the dark evenings that I'm getting a headache, I allow myself to retire to bed. It's far better than languishing on the sofa, unable to function and feeling miserable, and the extra sleep helps me to function better at work the next day. If I have something on in the evenings, fine, I'm there and I'm taking part, but if the day's work is done and I start sighing and wondering whether to flop in front of the tv, I don't. Bedtime. I've also started getting ready for bed much earlier, so that by the time I decide I'm sleepy I don't have to start having a mental argument about taking my make up off, showering, making lunch for the next day, blah blah blah.
  • I'm like a whirling dervish in the mornings. I refuse to let SAD steal away six months months (half my life!) of energy and productivity every year, so I have to work smart when I'm at my best each day. For me that's the mornings. I make a colour-coded to-do list without fail the night before (usually while sitting in bed with just the one eye open!), and I try to do as much of it as I can by lunchtime. It's pretty good practise all year round, actually. SAD has forced me to become much more organised!
  • I still believe exercise is the best answer. Yep. It's the toughest part. The last thing in the world I want to do is stride around the streets near my house in the dark during the winter. It's cold, I'm sleepy, and it takes an age to wrap up in layers. Not to mention cleaning the mud off Bea when we get home, and that annoying thing where my socks come off with my boots. Gah. But I got a dog to trick myself into exercise, because she needs it every day, and I know exercise wakes me up, puts me in a better mood, and stops me feeling quite so sluggish and lethargic. I've also just bought some running shoes...
  • It's the simple things. It's always a good thing to notice the small pleasures in life and be more mindful, but I find it particularly helpful during the winter, when I'm more easily stressed and a worrier. I've planted seeds to grow in the office at work, made sure I always had a craft project on the go, varied my packed lunches much more, and dozens of other little things to brighten the day and give myself something to look forward to. Not one of them took much energy, but it's nice to wake up in a morning and think, "I wonder if my seedlings have appeared yet," or "ooh, houmous for lunch today!"

So, onto my decision. I'm a great fan of planning, making lists and setting myself big and little goals. The traditional time of year to do this is, of course, New Year. The prospect of a fresh new annum, full of possibility has always appealed to me, and it's one of my favourite rituals to spend some time in December planning ahead and setting exciting new challenges. 

Except. We're now a quarter of the way into 2014. I have spent that first quarter feeling like my biggest achievement has been to get out of bed every morning and just about function until it's time to flop, exhausted, back onto the pillows again at night. Some days are better than others between January and March, but generally it's not the ideal time for me to be springing into action on my new year's resolutions. I adore Christmas, but I tend to find it tiring (I had a three-hour nap on Christmas Day last year), and by New Year I'm worried about where on earth I'm going to find the energy to bounce into January with much enthusiasm. I'm just too tired.

I was musing on this problem one evening last week in the bath. I thought about how happy I am that it is now Spring. I'm starting to feel back to my energetic Tigger-like self, interested in everything and anything, bursting with creativity and plans and feeling full of mischief. And it occurred to me (as the best ideas do when in the bath) that it's a really rubbish idea for me to run my year from January to December. What's the use in making all sorts of exciting plans and goals, then feeling so tired that I can even begin to make a dent in them, and ending up declaring myself useless and a failure? Would it not be better to turn a little bit Pagan about the whole thing, and shift my year to begin when I'm at my best, in the Spring? 

So there, folks, is my significant decision. My year now runs April to March. This means I can put all that enthusiasm for a new year into action immediately and see results as the new leaves are forming on the trees, the lambs are skipping round the fields, and the sun is shining. 

"Aha," you might be thinking, "Aha, hold on there Skippy. You still have to have winter at some point in your year. What then?" 

You see, it's just a mental shift. By the time Autumn and Winter come along, I'll have had my most productive time of the year, instead of starting it in my worst. I'll be winding down my year as the weather turns colder and the nights draw in, and I'll have the satisfaction of knowing that the biggest challenges of my year have been met (or not, but I will have tried) and I can plan for the more slow-paced goals, such as maintaining my current fitness levels, learning a new craft or reading certain books, etc., when I start to feel woozy again. As I've mentioned before, I actually enjoy many elements of autumn and winter, and it would be nice to be able to relax and enjoy curling up and resting, without beating myself up and rushing to meet un-ticked goals before the year ends. 

If Spring is all about new beginnings and rebirth, it doesn't make sense for me to start my year in the cold and dark, when the natural world is sleeping and my body wants me to do the same. So I am realigning my year to fit with nature's way of doing things. 

So, Happy New Year from me! What about you? SAD sufferer or not, would you change the very fabric of how your year works? I'll be interested to read your thoughts!

PS: Check out my SAD Pinterest board


  1. Happy New Year, I'm a firm believer in doing whatever makes you happy, no need at all to do things just because that's the way it always has been. I'm very fortunate in that I dont suffer from SAD, but I love the idea of starting the new year in Spring. Go for it. X X X

  2. I'm glad this year hasn't been quite so bad and you've got your own coping stater gives at hand. Fatigue is one of the biggest symptoms for me to cope with and I have to rest lots, it's frustrating as I'm a busy bee at heart. I think it is slightly worse in the winter too. We've longer and warmer days to look forward too, that will put a spring in our step! :) x

  3. Starting the year in spring sounds like an excellent plan Anna. I am definitely feeling more motivated now that the days are longer and the stresses of the past few months are fading.

    I'm very pleased to hear that this winter was kinder to you.


  4. Fluffy_duckling1 April 2014 at 22:43

    Your post has reminded me that I'm not alone in how the winter sffects me, you could be writing about me! I also echo the brilliance of a sunrise alarm clock!
    It's also made me realise that I start my year in spring already without really realising, I've an allotment and it's at this time that I'm starting to plant things and look ahead to a year of gardening and planning crops or how the garden will look- I'd never thought of it that way til now but it makes sense!
    All your coping tips work for me but what I think has made the biggest difference to me this year is having something creative to do whilst I'm curled up on the sofa- I've found that gives me a focus away from grumping about the dark and cold and has been really therapeutic!
    Hope your improved winters continue and Happy New Year!!

  5. Happy New Year! It sounds like you've come up with some excellent new strategies to beat or at least quash SAD. Here's to glorious spring sunshine and singing loudly in the car :) xxx

  6. you said about the achievement of getting in and out of bed.but....this is an achievement.in our world today there seems so much to contend with.and in many lives even more pressure,worries and illness too.to move those legs,to open ones eyes,to go to the toilet.i mean your sitting on a toilet!!how amazing is the human routine!!how amazing is the art of getting dressed espceically with british weather!!plus you gwet up and you give us thouightful posts.
    ive been here oh only today and i already think you great!!
    so getting out of bed is magnificant achievement.


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