Listen up, my fine people. This is not a drill. The darkest day of the year, also known as the winter solstice, has come, and gone and the days will only get brighter from here. We are all up in January. We have less than a month until a groundhog tells us when spring will come. Basically, we are in the home stretch of being impacted by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and we need to know how to cope.
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It is a new year with fresh starts, but SAD affects many people every year, usually starting in the fall, when time changes and the days get darker, and lifting in the spring as the days brighten up and become longer. In the meantime, we just have to deal. For anyone out there whose mood goes downhill during the darkest days, and you don’t know why, I am here to tell you what SAD is, who it affects, and what we can do to make it through. This post will be good for those who are familiar with SAD, because I will give a few of my tried-and-true tips about how I survive the fall and winter months.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Here is a fun fact: In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (2013) (DSM-5), the term Seasonal Affective Disorder is rarely, if ever, used. For all intents and purposes, and because it’s all the same to me and everyone else, I’m still calling it SAD.
In the DSM-5, SAD falls under the category of Major Depressive Disorder with seasonal pattern as a specifier. This means that the symptoms of major depressive disorder need to be a pattern existing during a certain time of year for at least two years. Let me break it down starting with what major depressive disorder is, then move on to what the seasonal pattern specifier means.
Major Depression per the DSM-5 (2013)
The diagnostic criterion for major depressive disorder is divided into sections A, B, C, D, and E with sections A-C representing a major depressive episode, and sections D and E ruling some things out.
calls for 5 of 9 listed symptoms to be present during the same two-week period and cause loss of interest or pleasure or depressed mood. These symptoms should not be attributed to anything obviously caused by a physical illness. The symptoms are:
1. Depressed mood most of the day and nearly every day reported by the individual or objective observation by others, i.e., that they may appear often tearful ( In adolescents this can manifest as an irritable mood)
2. Markedly diminished pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day nearly every day, once again by self-report or observation by others
3. Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain (i.e., a change of 5% body weight in a month) or significant decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day (In children this may manifest as not meeting expected weight gain considering age)
4. Insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping abnormally little or abnormally too much) nearly every day
5. Psychomotor agitation or retardation nearly every day that is observable by others and not just subjectively feeling slowed down
6. Loss of energy and fatigue almost every day
7. Feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, or feelings of excessive or inappropriate guilt, which may be delusional, almost every day
8. Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness nearly every day
9. Recurrent thoughts of death that do not stop at just a fear of dying, suicidal ideation, attempts of suicide, or a specific plan to enact suicide
dictates that these symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning
prescribes that the symptoms are not attributable to the physiological effects of substances or to another medical condition.
rules that the episode is not better explained by a schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia, schizophreniform disorder, delusional disorders, or any other specified and unspecified schizophrenia spectrum or other psychotic disorders
Section E :
relays that there has never been a manic episode or hypomanic episode associated with the symptoms of major depressive disorder
But What is the Seasonal Affect?
The specifier “with seasonal pattern” applies to recurrent major depressive episodes that:
A. Have regular sequential relationships between the onset of major depressive episodes and major depressive disorder and a particular time of year. (such as fall or winter)
B. Have full remissions (or a change from major depression to mania or hypomania) that occurs at a specific time of year (e.g., depression ends in the spring)
C. Have had two major depressive episodes in the last two years that are related to the season and no non-seasonal major depressive episodes have occurred in the same period
D. Seasonal major depressive episodes substantially outnumber the major depressive episodes that may have occurred throughout the individual’s lifetime
Who does Seasonal Affective Disorder impact?
SAD does not discriminate; however, you are more prone to dealing with major depression with the seasonal pattern specifier if you already have a mental illness.
There is a reason for the term “winter blues.” It is because the darkness and cold deprive us of life-giving sunlight and comfort. For this reason, it can impact anyone in any walk of life.
What Can You to do Lighten the Impact of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Talk to your therapist or counselor
I tend to mention that I am not a professional when I write. Seeking the help of a professional counselor or therapist can be extremely beneficial. If you find that the seasonal pattern impacts you, you can start with some talk therapy. You can talk about what exactly affects your mood and what you can do to cope.
Have a chat with your psychiatrist about seasonal affective disorder
Psychiatry is a handy tool as well. In instances of situational depression, certain medications can be prescribed to get you through.
If you already have a therapist and psychiatrist, you can discuss the issue and ask your psychiatrist for a medication tweak if necessary.
Seeing a professional will give you the opportunity to plan for the season and get you through this home stretch.
Seek help from friends to help you through seasonal affective disorder
It is always good to have a support system. If you are feeling down it will be beneficial to have someone to call. Perhaps you and your friend get the winter blues together. It can be good to commiserate as well.
Your “group” of friends does not have to be large, as I have stated in other posts, just positive. It can be one person that you can talk to and trust.
Be aware, however, that your friends are not your therapist. They can support you, but therapists are specially trained to help you cope in the healthiest of ways. So don’t try to treat your friends as therapists.
The great SOB
Ah yes, the great SOB. It is exactly what it says it is. It’s a sunuvabitch and a great, big sob. Crying can be cleansing for us. Allow yourself space to be with your feelings. It’s ok to allow the great SOB to happen when you feel down. If it interferes with your everyday life, however, it may be time to seek help from a professional that can help you explore and cope with your feelings in other ways.
This is one of my favorites, basking in the glow of a light therapy lamp. Light therapy lamps have special bulbs that mimic sunlight. Having one in your office space or at home can relieve some of the SAD.
I am not saying that the lamp will make you super-human, but it can give you a little buzz of extra get-up-and-go that you need for your day.
Create a comfort zone
When I am down, I make it a point to create a comfortable space for myself, away from the winter wind and cold. Light some candles, use some incense, dust off that aromatherapy diffuser you got for your birthday last year. Take a hot shower. Even better, take a hot bath of Epsom salts and some essential oils. There are plenty of ways to find comfort in the winter, even if it is your favorite pair of fuzzy socks.
It is always good to have an outlet for your sadness. Even if you aren’t the creative “type,” you can find ways to create in whatever way you want. Perhaps you write or paint. If you’re not keen on drawing, adult coloring books are great. There are plenty of things out there to keep you creative and busy. Puzzles, brain games, paint by numbers, you name it!
Having a creative outlet helps keep your mind off the dreadful outside while creating something beautiful or sunny inside.
Final thoughts about seasonal affective disorder
We are nearing the end of the SAD season as we move into spring. WE aren’t quite out of the woods yet, but you can make it through this last chunk of time.
You do not have to be ashamed if you experience the effect of seasonal affective disorder. Many people share your discomfort. I hope that this post has given you insight into what SAD is and a few ways to cope
If your depression gets to the point of having suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is having suicidal thoughts, take that very seriously. This level of depression requires swift medical attention. If you cannot get an appointment with a professional and have suicidal thoughts or plans, please reach out for help. I will leave some resources below.
I know that it sucks, but please have a safe and stable SAD season. Remember your friends and your resources.