Content Warning: discussion of mental health, medicating for mental health, depression, and mention of suicide.
For most of my life, I lived in one of the darkest, rainiest cities in North America. Feeling penned in and blue during the long, wet winters was normal, and feeling guilty for not maximizing every rare sunny day was also part of everyday life. As soon as the rain set in (and when I say rain, I mean sometimes 25-30 consecutive days of rain) my mood would plummet and would stay low until the sun came back, months later. I eventually learned that this was just one part of having Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and that although it wasn’t the root cause, the lack of light and incessant rain was not helping my mental health.
What is SAD?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a common issue in the realm of mental health, generally considered to be a form of depression brought on by the change of seasons and the changes in natural light. Exposure to sunshine and the Vitamin D it provides, has an influence on the body’s production of serotonin and dopamine, both of which affect mood and can change behaviour. SAD is not just ‘in your head’. Like all mental health issues, there are tangible and very real effects on the body as well.
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Antisocial behaviour, avoiding people or being reclusive
- Having low energy, listlessness or restlessness
- Having problems falling asleep, staying asleep or oversleeping
- Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having difficulty concentrating (brain fog, forgetfulness)
- Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
Living with SAD
Now that my MDD is better controlled with medication and I live in a sunnier location that has brilliantly bright winter days most of the time, I have felt the effects of SAD lessen, but not disappear.
I have found that the best ways to support my mind and body during a depressive phase is to be mindful of SAD and address the symptoms even if they are not clear or SAD is not the primary cause of a low mood. The actions you can take to offset SAD are good mood boosters regardless of the source of depression, though they are not silver bullets that simply fix things.
There are few things more upsetting and insulting than being told to “just go for a walk” or “drink more water” when you are in the grips of mental illness, but small actions can have cumulative effects, and in most cases, simple environmental and lifestyle changes can provide some temporary relief.
Feeling SAD? Go back to basics
Managing SAD successfully is a combination of tricking your body into thinking the conditions around it are more ideal than they are, and having the presence of mind to push yourself to engage in incremental changes towards feeling better.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) uses mindfulness and strategies to “re-route” invasive or troubling thought patterns and disrupt the general malaise and negativity of many forms of depression and can be effective in managing SAD. Not everyone has access to therapy, but there are lots of online resources that can be very useful and don’t require a therapist or psychiatric professional.
Here are my tried and true go-to responses when a bleak season has me down
- Hydrate – cool/cold and wet weather makes it hard to remember to drink because we aren’t hot or sweaty. Try to think of your water intake in litres, not glasses. Staying hydrated will help with the ‘brain fog’ that comes with SAD
- Move your body – depression can make even the simplest physical tasks difficult, and crummy weather and lack of sunlight don’t help. Getting daily exercise, even if it’s brief, can really help. Do what you can and what your body allows. Exercise will produce the endorphins and your brain craves and can temporarily lift your mood.
- Head for the light – sunlight is a major factor in SAD and even if you live in a dark and dreary place, getting natural light of any kind will help. Likewise, a full spectrum lamp can provide the light you need in the darkest months.
- Supplement – the world of vitamins and nutritional supplements is a complex industry with a lot of conflicting information. Many studies reveal that bolstering your system with trace elements and hard to get vitamins can lessen the effects of SAD. Always talk to a healthcare provider before starting a new regime to ensure that the supplements you are considering will play well with other medications of conditions.
- Get a check up – what may seem like SAD or generalized depression may be caused by other medical conditions or hormonal changes. Mental health is often treated as an issue separate from physical health but the two are inextricably linked, if one is out of sync, so will the other be.
- Mind your sugar intake – a balanced approach to eating is always a good idea, but if you’re feeling down, try to resist reaching for something sweet. It may make you feel good in the moment but the metabolic downswing that comes after a sugar high is hard on your body, and not great for your mood. The last thing you need when you’re feeling down is to have a sugar crash!
- Self care – this is such a popular buzzword, but it’s a hot topic for good reason: self care is essential, no matter your symptoms, condition, or concern. Re-engage in the things you love, take time for yourself, meditate, and care for your mind and body like you’d care for a dear friend or family member.
- Seek pleasure – not all pleasure is sexual, but getting in tune with what makes your body feel good will be a boon to your brain chemistry. Have sex, masturbate, have a hot bath, watch a show that makes you laugh, do something that gives you that feel good feeling.
Sex and SAD
Sex with depression of any kind is a tricky thing. Anxiety and depression saps the joy out of most everything and makes even the smallest aspects of life more difficult. The apathy and malaise of depression can make sex feel like a chore and many of the medications prescribed to manage depression make arousal and orgasm more difficult or nearly impossible. This is a vicious cycle that can have lasting effects on libido and sexual self esteem. It’s hard to feel sexy with SAD but it’s not impossible and in my (non-professional) opinion, pleasure can be a big help when you’re living with SAD and/or other mental health issues but it is not the be-all-end-all.
Communicating with partners can be challenging when you’re depressed, but looping them in on your SAD or other mental health issues can make a downturn in sexual interest feel less personal and like less of an obstacle. Remember: sex and intimacy are not the same. You can get, and give, plenty of affection and intimate energy even if you aren’t up for sex.
Plan for SAD
If you know that the change of seasons affects you, plan for those effects. Maybe the winter holidays are extra overwhelming and need a new plan, or your summer holiday might serve you better in February? Think about how you can accommodate your needs in those darker months and build the maintenance of SAD into your life. Making a condition like SAD manageable and mindfully integrating it into your life can go a long way when it’s at its worst and you just want to curl up in a ball and wait for spring.
Remember, just as the seasons of the year change, so change the seasons of your life, and how you feel now may not be how you feel forever. If you think that you may be suffering from SAD or other mental health challenges, connect with your local resources, see your family doctor or do some research. Knowledge is power and staying empowered when you’re not at your best will only ever help you feel better and help you feel more like yourself.