I’ve experienced the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) every year since my late teens. But it wasn’t until I got an official diagnosis that it became clear why during the winter months school felt like an uphill struggle and, if given the chance, I could sleep all day.
It then took me many more years to accept the long-term nature of my condition and find ways to help me through. I also needed time to be brave enough to take my light box into the office and to tick the box for “depression” when filling out medical questionnaires for new roles.
What is SAD?
SAD is a form of depression that occurs recurrently and predictably in line with the change of season. Though it’s possible to suffer from SAD in the Summer, it’s a condition that typically affects people during the Autumn and Winter when natural sunlight is in shorter supply. Some people may begin to feel unwell once the clocks go back at the end of October, and December to February is when most experiencers feel at their worst.
The causes of SAD are unknown, but it’s understood the lack of light may affect the brain’s circadian rhythms (body clock) as well as hormones, including serotonin and melatonin that are essential for keeping us on an even keel and regulate our sleep.
As SAD exists on a spectrum, symptoms may be mild and more manageable (often referred to as ‘winter blues’), or they may be more serious and significantly impair your well-being and functioning during the season. According to Norman Rosenthal, expert SAD researcher and psychiatrist (Rosenthal N.E. – Winter Blues. Seasonal Affective Disorder. What it is and how to overcome it. The Guilford Press) it’s time to consult your GP if symptoms include:
- Changes to your sleep patterns, including needing to sleep more at night and finding it difficult to wake up/get up; early morning waking; dozing off during the day; or feeling extreme tiredness when it gets dark.
- Symptoms of depression such as feeling sad and crying a lot, feelings of despair and worthlessness, irritability, withdrawing from others, neglecting self-care, or suicidal thoughts.
- Problems concentrating and other cognitive issues, such as forgetting how to do simple tasks or taking longer to complete them, feeling muddled, a marked drop in productivity, feeling overwhelmed by your to do list, or falling behind on life admin.
- Marked appetite changes, typically feeling hungrier than usual, eating more, feeling out of control with your eating habits, preferring starchy and sugary (comfort) foods, often leading to weight gain during the winter, exacerbated by feeling disinclined to exercise.
Treatments for SAD may include light therapy – sitting in front of a light box that has an extremely bright light and/or using a dawn simulator alarm clock so you don’t have to get up in the dark and cognitive-behavioural therapy. And in the most extreme cases your doctor may also suggest anti-depressants.
SAD @ work
Work can be a major stressor for SAD experiencers. Often during November and December there’s a rush to get things done “before Christmas” and a spike in socials. Once it gets dark – around 4pm in December – late afternoon meetings and evening events can become a source of dread as tiredness can be crushing and cognitive functions become impaired. Creativity, motivation, productivity and linguistic dexterity can fall off a cliff.
If you’re struggling with SAD, speak to your supervisor/manager about your symptoms. As SAD is a type of depression, if you suffer recurring episodes that significantly impair your functioning, you could ask your employer to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate your different needs at this time.
You should be able to informally agree some changes to help make life easier. If you struggle to open-up, or concerned about the response, speak to your HR contact, who should help you manage this, and may speak on your behalf.
If your employer has an occupational health service, you can also speak to them and agree some changes with your team in line with medical advice. They will usually suggest you visit your GP in the first instance, so make sure you’ve done that to get a formal diagnosis.
Meanwhile, below are some self-help tips that have worked for me:
- Accepting you have SAD and it’s physically impossible for you to function at the same level of productivity that you do normally. Recognising your boundaries will help you to take care of yourself. You may need some therapy to help you to do this.
- Getting up and going to bed at the same time each day to give yourself structure and help regulate your body clock. Going to bed a little earlier during Winter is a good idea; sleeping in is not so healthy and may make you feel more lethargic and depressed.
- Creating a positive and enjoyable morning routine that motivates you to get up and sets the tone for the day. This may include having a hot shower with stimulating essential oils or using a face mask or body lotion that helps you to feel good. When working from home, getting dressed sooner rather than later and wearing “proper” clothes.
- Noting the time of day when you usually have the most energy and scheduling difficult tasks, meetings etc for that period where possible.
- Respecting your limits and asking colleagues to cover ad hoc projects/events that don’t necessarily have to be done by you – with you returning the favour in the summer.
- Taking proper lunch breaks and going outside whenever possible.
- Using your lightbox whilst working.
- Taking your longest annual holiday during the Autumn and Winter to rest at home or go abroad to somewhere sunny if you can!
- Not working later than necessary; don’t try to ‘push on through’.
- Declining work-related social functions to the extent possible and talking to your friends and families about your energy levels; trying to arrange catch-ups for daylight hours.
- Taking daily gentle exercise such as a walk, swimming, or some yoga.
- Being mindful of the amount of carbs you’re consuming and limiting them to one carb-heavy meal per day. Many people with SAD crave hot, starchy, and sweet comfort food that can make them feel more sluggish. Soups are a healthier option, as are healthy fats, lean proteins, and vegetables.
- Cutting back on caffeine and alcohol. Both are tempting choices when we feel tired and depressed but will make us feel worse.
- Starting Christmas shopping early and doing as much as possible online.
Sheri Werner is former City law firm HR professional-turned-fully qualified and insured Reiki practitioner and founder of Seven Jewels Therapies.