Photo: Stocksy
Photo: Stocksy

MIND

Living with Seasonal Affective Disorder and how to manage it

Bridget Minamore dreads the winter because depression and listlessness descend when the days get darker

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By Bridget Minamore on

This weekend, the UK began daylight saving – six months of the year when the clocks go back, so the days are longer, but consequently our mornings are darker. We might have got an extra hour in bed on Sunday, but I was still absolutely dreading it. 

Every winter, the change in the weather manages to catch me off guard. My birthday is in the middle of October, so I have a euphoric week or two filled with friends and love and laughter, but then it’s as though someone pulls the rug out from underneath me. I drop. As the month progresses and the days get darker, I feel my mood sink back to normal, and then further down, and then even further still. I begin overeating, start sleeping in later and later, and feel sluggish, tired and, worst of all, really bloody miserable, with depression becoming a grey mist that creeps around the periphery of my vision. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder (commonly known by the apt acronym SAD) affects more than one in 15 people in the UK, typically between September and April. For most people, it’s a mild case of the “winter blues” – feeling a bit sadder and recognising you miss the sunlight on your skin. For some of us though, SAD can be crippling. Symptoms range from depression and overeating to finding it difficult to get up in the morning, exhaustion and sleeping during the day. Frustratingly, its exact causes are unknown. Common consensus though is that a lack of sunlight stops a part of your brain working properly, which might throw off your body’s internal clock or produce less serotonin (which is linked to depression) or melatonin (which makes you feel more tired). Vitamin D deficiency can also be linked, with people from South Asian and Afro-Caribbean backgrounds more likely to be affected.

I’ve had a low mood in the winter ever since childhood but, as I’ve got older, it’s become more of a problem. As autumn begins seeping into winter, I find myself getting more irritated and disorganised than usual, falling behind with the things I know I need to do. Everything becomes more difficult, but my low mood stops me from caring as much about this as I usually would. I’m a freelancer and keeping myself ticking (and my rent paid) requires a lot of constant juggling. By Halloween each year, I typically have had one of my notorious week-long duvet days, rarely leaving my bedroom and ignoring my rapidly growing to-do lists. When the sun disappears, all the balls I’m juggling drop and, each year, I worry about things getting so bad I cause my career real damage. Things like socialising also become a problem, with my tendency to stay in meaning that, when I do go out, I drink too much and party too hard, to try and force myself to have fun.

While it can be almost impossible getting up in the first place, running or swimming early in the morning gives me something to wake up for

In lots of ways though, I know how lucky I am. Being a freelancer means I might find it easier to hide from the world, but it also grants me the privilege of hiding at home for a while until I feel a bit better and can start putting myself back together. I get a chance to recharge my batteries, while mates who have 9-5s or young children – or both – just don’t have that luxury. My friend Elelta tells that when winter starts, “I feel like my body stops working and I function at 60 per cent at best.” I agree with her, but she also has a full-time job and a toddler. Duvet days are out of the question and it’s a shame our society and the work structures we have in place rarely accommodate our mental-health issues.

Still, my own SAD is something that endlessly frustrates me. I’ve spoken about my experiences with my mental health – how sometimes my anxiety feels as though someone is crushing my chest – but SAD feels so much more difficult to overcome. While I can usually rationalise myself out of an anxious episode (no, nothing bad will happen; yes, everything will be OK), depressive thoughts aren’t so easily talked away. The bad weather and how that affects my mood also exacerbates my anxiety, which just feels unfair – I stop functioning, then get anxious about how little I’m doing. This year, I’m getting used to the weather and am back getting stuff done. Here’s hoping speaking about it more means one of the things I get done is helping more people recognise their own winter issues, and get over the hump alongside me.

SAD Tips

SAD isn’t uncommon and neither are the treatments for it. While it’s taken me a while to find out what works for me, and not everything will work for everyone, there are still lots of things out there to try and combat the winter blues.

  • Light therapy (aka SAD lamps) ie a special lamp called a light box simulates exposure to sunlight. While the lamps are beautiful and the range of lamps, from desk lights to alarm clocks, is varied, they can be expensive. Large lamps can be in excess of £50 and they’re not guaranteed to work – I had one and it didn’t make any difference whatsoever.
     
  • Regular exercise has been something that’s really helped me over the years. While it can be almost impossible getting up in the first place, running or swimming early in the morning gives me something to wake up for.
     
  • Doctors can prescribe antidepressants or talking therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
     
  • Some doctors recommend taking Vitamin D supplements in winter or even year round if you’re from an Afro-Caribbean background.  I started taking some recently for the first time, and the difference in my mood has been incredible. Vitamin D sprays or pills are also only a few pounds - please, please give them a go.
     
  • Getting some sun is probably the easiest, but also the most unlikely and expensive, cure – swapping your summer holiday to winter is one solution. Or, you can do what my aunt does: she lived in Scotland for 30 years and has decided she can’t stand the winters any more, so she decamps to Ghana every year from September to February.

@bridgetminamore

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Tagged in:
Mental Health
mind
depression
Winter

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