Updated: Dec 4, 2021
SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, affects a significant part of the population in northern and southern climates where there isn’t much daylight during the winter. Add in gray, dreary, wet, dark weather like we have here in Western Washington for 6 months out of the year, and for me that’s a double recipe for disaster. I’ll not write about the science of SAD, no numbers or statistics, but about what it FEELS like for 50% of my life, and the steps I take to combat it.
Cold. When autumn rolls around and the daylight hours start to get shorter, I get cold and start sleeping more. Cold to the bone, where I feel like I’m a fraction of a degree from hypothermia (which I’ve experienced and it’s not pleasant). I need to have my air about 10 degrees F warmer than others in the house for comfort. I combat this by wearing a wool hat 24/7 and having a space heater in my office, which really helps, but then I feel like I’m a prisoner in that one room for about 6 months out of the year. I spend 6 months choosing between warm and isolated, or freezing and social. Not a great choice to have to make.
Light. I cannot get enough LIGHT! I turn on every light in the house, and my husband follows behind and turns them all off, then I go back and turn them on again, AND bump the thermostat up a few degrees... and I feel like I play this endless game for 6 months out of every 12. Even with every window covering open, it’s still dark and I feel like Washington State is a dark, damp, cold dungeon. Dismal. I use a HappyLight in the mornings which helps, but the trade-off for that is sometimes a headache. Again… choices.
Motivation. Virtually nonexistent for half of the year. I go through the motions of cooking, cleaning, pretending to be upbeat and happy, but I feel like it's an act. I force myself to exercise and practice yoga daily, it's the one thread I can hold onto that helps me feel like I've done something productive and good for myself each day.
Sleep. I begin to sleep more than usual, and I’m already normally an 8-hour-a-day person. I sleep 9-10 hours a day in winter, sometimes up to 12. People say to me, “Wow, that’s great, I wish I could sleep that much!” to which I reply “Yeah, but that’s a few hours a day, every day for 50% of my life, that I don’t have to get things done, which makes me feel like I’m always behind.” I rarely make it through a winter day without falling asleep during the day, sometimes more than once. I feel like someone has drugged me and I cannot fight against it. Again, choices... Give in to the incredible urge to sleep and not have time in the day to get things done, or walk around like a zombie, mumbling incoherently.
Brain Fog. Trying to string words together into a complete sentence becomes very difficult. Using the correct words for those sentences is even harder. Yesterday I said I was going to run the lawn mower, when I meant the dishwasher. My family has started to be able to translate what I’m tying to say fairly well, thank goodness. I also wander room to room aimlessly, not having any idea where I put something down or what I walked into the room for in the first place. When I wake up from an unplanned nap (see Sleep paragraph above) or from sleeping 10+ hours at night, I’m in a sleep hangover that makes even simple thoughts hurt.
Cold. Did I mention cold?
Dread. Every autumn I have a sense of dread deep inside me. Dread that I know I’ll be cold and tired and not be able to think straight for the next 5-6 months. Dread that I won’t be able to get outside and garden and hike as much as I do in the summer. Dread that I’ll feel like a prisoner in my heated office so as not to feel like I’m freezing to death. Dread that I feel like I’m withering into dark nothing because I won’t see much of the sun for the next 6 months. Dread that I have to go through this yet again… every damn year, 50 percent of every year.
I’m so fortunate that I don’t go into major depression every winter like many people who fight SAD do. My symptoms are mostly physical. I eat well, I exercise and practice yoga daily, I get outside when weather allows. I do what I can to take care of myself. But the struggle is real, and it’s painful, and it consumes 50% of my life.
If I could go to bed every October and not wake up until March, that would be perfect for me. I should have been a hibernating animal.
These are different for everyone, but I feel like I have a bit more of a grip on things this season by following these daily:
Morning session with a HappyLight - I had to start with just a few minutes a day because of headaches, but now I rarely have a problem
Vitamin D supplements morning and night
Daily personal-practice yoga, even if it's a short stretching session. I also use my elliptical and/or TRX - I MOVE my body every single day
Get outside as much as possible, even if it means I bundle up to the point of not being recognizable as a human
Teaching yoga classes at my local YMCA gives me something to look forward to a few times a week and commits me to being present for others
Tea in the morning, and CrioBru cacao drink in the afternoon - something to look forward to when I get hit with the afternoon sleepies, with great health benefits too!
Educating my friends and family on what SAD is and how it affects me.