The colder weather brings pumpkin pie, the return of those forgotten sweaters in your closet, apple picking with your family, and any number of cherished traditions. Maybe you love houses decorated with strings of twinkling lights, Christmas carols, and cookies as much as I do. But for some, the colder weather also means wrestling with Seasonal Affective Disorder.
You may have heard the term Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as SAD), but what is it really? SAD is a type of depression that is linked with the seasons. Sometimes SAD can occur around the summer months, but most often SAD occurs during winter months when it becomes colder outside. But SAD isn’t about the temperature dropping; it’s about the lack of light.
What signs can you look for to spot SAD?
A diagnosis of SAD requires having symptoms of major depression in conjunction with specific seasons for at least two years.
When SAD hits during the winter months some symptoms might include: “having low energy, hypersomnia, overeating, weight gain, craving carbohydrates, social withdrawal”.
If you are experiencing SAD or, because of your mental health history, expect to experience it in the near future, there are several steps you can take to help yourself cope or to mitigate its effects.
1. Stay active.
One of the common physical symptoms of SAD is loss of energy and an onset of lethargy. Although it may be hard to stay active while experiencing this symptom of SAD, remaining active can actually be a key piece to managing the disorder and staying healthy. Planning short walks outside or small events with friends and family can provide much needed exercise. While rest is important, it is often possible for a person experiencing SAD-related lethargy to rest too much, and a consistent schedule of light activity can help combat this symptom. Soaking in the sunlight, however little it is in the winter months, may help diminish the symptoms of SAD and the endorphins created by exercise can help to increase energy levels.
2. Lean on community.
As with other depressive conditions, SAD also has social side effects including withdrawal and isolation. Many who experience SAD are tempted to wall themselves up at home, but it is important to remain in community when battling this condition. As with any condition, it is tempting to tell ourselves that our problems will just burden others or they’re really not that bad. As a result, we often try to pull ourselves up by our boot straps and put on a happy face. But journeying through SAD alone will be more wearisome in the long run.
We were never meant to fight our battles completely alone. Would the Apostle Paul have been able to continue his ministry without the support of local churches, Titus, Luke, and others? Would Frodo have been able to reach Mordor without the help of Sam? Would Harry Potter have been able to defeat the evil Lord Voldemort without the help of his friends Hermione and Ron? While some of these examples are fictional, they illustrate an important point. We as humans cannot thrive in isolation and as Christians we are unable to live life well without the help of the Spirit and of the people of the Church. Community is an essential part of life in the best of times, and it becomes even more crucial for someone experiencing SAD.
3. Be kind to yourself.
If you are walking through a season of SAD, you may be experiencing some of the symptoms listed above: oversleeping, low energy, weight gain/overeating, hopelessness, difficulty concentrating, etc. None of these symptoms can be a walk in the park, and the self-talk following these feelings and behaviors often becomes another complicating factor.
By way of example, picture yourself carrying around a 50-pound weight in a backpack, and this weight represents all the symptoms, feelings, and effects of SAD. Over time this weight starts to feel quite heavy and tiring, and it takes more and more effort to carry around. Now, as you get increasingly tired of carrying the first 50 pounds, imagine someone puts a 10-pound weight in the back pack. This second weight represents the negative things you might be tempted to say or feel about yourself. The bag is now worse than ever, and the second weight is one that really need not be there at all. Just as the symptoms of SAD are heavy, the negative things we think and say about ourselves are a major part of the weight of this condition.
When a person suffering from SAD thinks, “I should be over this by now,” or “I will never get myself together,” or “No one wants to be around me,” the weight of the condition can become worse than it needs to be. It is important to be kind to yourself in this season. That doesn’t mean it will always be easy, but God invites us to take shelter in His grace and remind ourselves of His kindness towards us. It’s okay to be messy and human, and it is in an open recognition and admission of our weakness that we grow closer to Christ.
4. Seek treatment.
Options for treating SAD can range from do-it-yourself light therapy to a range of professional options. The most common of the at-home options is light therapy; the use of “light boxes, lamps, and visors” as a means of mimicking the effects of the sun in the warmer months has been shown effective in treating SAD.
There are various professional treatments available to those battling SAD. Sometimes antidepressants can be used seasonally to aid in reducing symptoms. You can call your psychiatrist or general practitioner for help in determining if that’s the best course of action for you. Therapy can also be a helpful place for you to navigate healthy patterns and coping strategies for SAD. You should also call for help if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or there is a major challenge in functioning day to day.
While SAD is a medically recognized condition affecting as much as 5% of the US population, we can mitigate its effects, even when it seems to be taking over our feelings and behaviors. By being aware of how our bodies and minds change in the shifting of the seasons and taking action when necessary, we can help each other flourish and thrive even in the worst winter months.
Kristine Johnson is a Marriage and Family Therapist Associate at Thrive Therapy LLC in Louisville Kentucky. She is originally from the small town of Kingsville, Ontario in Canada, she holds a Master of Divinity in Biblical Counseling at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She lives with her husband Mike and two cats Pancake and Waffles. More about Kristine and her private practice can be found at: www.counselingwithkristine.com