Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It’s not something we really talk about or acknowledge. But we
should need to.
- Because SAD affects many more people than we realize
- Because SAD is more than just “the winter blues”
- Because SAD can significantly magnify anxiety, agitation, clinical depression, and bipolar disorder
- Because SAD’s symptoms become more severe as the season wears on
SAD is a depressive disorder that starts and ends about the same time each year.
For me, it starts about mid to late October, when the temps drop and the daylight hours start getting noticeably shorter, and ends in late March to early April.
Interestingly, there’s a strong correlation between the distance you live from the equator and the length and severity of your SAD. Meaning, as a Minnesota girl, my SAD tends to be much more severe and longer lived than it is for those who live in Jacksonville, FL or Houston, TX, But it’s not as severe as it is for those who live in Thunder Bay, Canada or Anchorage, Alaska. This has to do with the tilt of the earth during this time of year.
Over the years, and especially in analyzing the severity of my SAD last year, I realized the diminishing daylight hours combined with the over abundance of cloudy days and frigid temperatures creates a toxic concoction that slowly erodes my positive mindset and upbeat personality. And frustratingly, I have ABSOLUTELY NO CONTROL over these factors.
However, God has given us SOME things WE CAN control, and those things can make the difference between sinking and swimming.
We talked about the dangers of isolating ourselves when we’re depressed and in the throws of SAD in Let’s Combat SAD–Part 1. And we’ll talk about the rest of the things we can do to manage and minimize the severity of SAD today and in future posts.
However, through this series I’m going to continuously remind you of the importance of clinging to Jesus during this time and as you incorporate other things we’ll talk about. Beloved, He’s the Only One who can keep up from going under completely and permanently.
- Stay anchored in His Word
- I recommend reading and praying through a Psalm a day (maybe more than once)
- Journal verse-by-verse or section-by-section how that Psalm speaks to your heart and/or situation and invite God to minister to you there
- Journal your prayers
- This helps you pour out and unclutter your mind
- It will also serve as a reminder for following years how Jesus guided you through this season of SAD and give you the confidence He’ll do it again
Unfortunately, there’s no specific cause to SAD. Nothing we can point to and say, “this is it.” I believe it’s a combination of things that accumulate, build on each other, and fester into something ugly that has the power to take us down into a very dark place. A place I resided in last winter and have no desire to go back to again. (read more about that here)
However, most of us who wrestle with SAD are greatly affected by the reduction in sunlight. Not just daylight.
This makes sense as our daylight hours significantly diminish from the Autumnal Equinox (September 22) to the Winter Solstice (December 21). And although it’s great to know our daylight light hours slowly increase from December 21 to the Summer Solstice (June 20), it’s important to note from mid-October to early March we have a significantly higher number of cloudy days in comparison to the rest of the year. And as you can imagine, that has a profound affect on us.
The first thing that diminishing sunlight messes with is our Circadian Rhythm, or internal biological clock. No, I’m not talking about baby-making (maybe another time). I’m talking about our internal clock that tells us when it’s time to go to bed at night and get up in the morning. This is even more pronounced in those who go to school or work in the dark and come home in the dark during our long winter months. Those who rarely see the sun because they’re stuck indoors during the limited daylight hours and have little or no access to windows.
Second, diminishing sunlight means diminishing Vitamin D absorption. This is compounded by the fact we in north spend most of our time indoors due to the frigid temps, and when we do go outside we tend to cover every square inch of skin in an effort to stay warm.
According to Medical News Today, Vitamin D has many important functions, including:
- Supporting bone health by enabling the absorption of calcium
- Promoting muscle health
- Modulating the immune system
- Aiding cell growth
- Reducing inflammation, which helps prevent diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis
- Regulating blood pressure and supporting cardiovascular health
Mayo Clinics tell us, Vitamin D is also a driver for some very important cycles in our day-to-day-lives such as
- Melatonin Production
- Melatonin play a significant role in our mood and sleep patterns. It accumulates in our body during the day so we can fall asleep and stay asleep through the night, and as we sleep it diminishes so we can wake up rested and refreshed in the morning. (Blue light from our screens—phones, TV, computers, etc—also inhibit melatonin production)
- Serotonin Levels
- Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (biochemical in our brain) that also affects our mood. There have been several studies that show a strong correlation between depression, SAD, and a drop in sunlight and Vitamin D levels.
Also according to Mayo Clinics and my personal experience, Vitamin D deficiency can lead to:
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Tiredness or low energy
And, if you’re like me, all of these things only enhance and exasperate depression—especially the weight gain.
My symptoms start out small and slowly progress from there.
It begins with little things I can (and often do) brush off as this or that. However, after a bit, my symptoms become harder and harder to brush off until, and then before I know it I find myself sliding into a deep dark pit.
So, last Spring I prayerfully looked back at the past few winters and asked God to reveal my pattern. To make me aware because, as we all know, awareness is key to breaking a pattern.
The first thing I feel is a heaviness in my mood. A tiredness. A sluggishness that’s not normal for me. This is different and beyond the weariness from prolonged seasons of busyness. It’s not something a day off, nap, or a few extra hours of sleep can fix. I have a harder time maintaining a positive outlook and a “get after it” mentality. My personality dulls and I want to withdraw more.
There’s also a distinct increase in my cravings for carbs and sugar—anything to give me a boost to make it to or through the next thing. Never mind the “crash” that takes me lower than I was before.
Next I start to slow down, physically. I don’t move as much, walk as much, do as much. I lose my gumption. Sit-itis takes over. And it takes a tremendous amount of effort to exercise, but when I do I feel SO MUCH better.
Then I start to put on weight which always makes me more depressed.
And all this happens in the chaos before Thanksgiving and Christmas. So when Christmas arrives, I’m already wrestling with depression and find little joy in the Season of Joy.
And from January forward it just gets dramatically worse.
What I am doing now
This fall I became the proud owner of a light therapy lamp!
- It’s in my office. I have it on all day as I do my quiet time, read, knit, and work.
- It has already made a tremendous difference in my mood and outlook! I can tell the days I don’t use my light.
- Typically, if you spend an hour or so with your light you are good, but I like to use mine a little more
Ideas For you:
- Have the light on your desk while you study or are at work
- Incorporate it in the place you do your quiet time, read, etc.
- Have it on when you read, fold laundry, do the dishes, etc
- Other ways to get supplemental sunshine:
- Go to a garden center
- There you’ll get the double-bonus of the psychological benefits of being around the plants, even if it’s a cloudy day.
- Go to an indoor garden/conservatory/tropical area of a local zoo
- Same as above
- Tanning bed for 10-15 minutes every week
- Go to a garden center
I take supplemental Vitamin D all year:
- In the Spring and Summer I take one gel caplet in the morning when I wake up and one before I go to bed at night.
- During SAD season, I take two in the morning when I wake up and two before I go to bed at night.
- Ask your doctor or nutritionist to do blood work to determine which nutrients you’re deficient on.
- Come up with a plan to get everything regulated.
- This will also help you know how much vitamin D you need.
- For those of you in the Twin Cities, my nutritionist is Christy Nye at Woodbury Spine.
- If you’re out of my area, I would still recommend contacting her or her office for a referral as she has a vast network of high quality nutritionists and chiropractors across the country—many of whom are Brothers and Sisters in Christ.
I take Melatonin supplements all year:
- I take one tablet in the Spring and Summer before bed
- I take two during SAD season
Talk to your doctor first
Remember to stay connected to people. Ask friends and loved ones to keep you accountable about taking your supplements and/or using your light. If they know you well, they’ll know if you’ve hung out with your light or not and whether you’ve taken your supplements or not. That external feedback is vital! These people can help you be more aware of your symptoms and progression as they are on the outside looking in and can’t write them off as something else (like I tend to do).
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