Are You Feeling S.A.D.
Our twitter follower @TheOnlyMinx asked me to write about seasonal affective disorder
I had a tweet from one of my follower @TheOnlyMinx who is an awesome lady and also follows Frank, her writing and mine to. She has S.A.D and asked me to write something about it, which of course I said I would (I will write for anyone!). I really hope that I do not disappoint her so here goes – wish me luck!
As I write, it is a beautiful autumnal day. Autumn is my favourite time of the year. The trees are greens and golds and reds. There is that smell in the air. I get to cover up (I look better with more clothes on, I promise you not just my body confidence issues :S). I live in the middle of the countryside so I can feel the effects of the changing weather. I moved here from a VERY large city and I noticed a tension in EVERYTHING (lambs, cows, sheep, humans, dogs – everything) during the Spring time, then something just popped and it all resorted back to normal. It was my first real experience of what is called Spring Fever. But Autumn is definitely my favourite. Nights in snuggled up in front of the TV. Stodgy comfort stews. Bonfire night. Toffee apples. Heaven!
However, for many it’s just hell on earth. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is where a person experiences mood changes with the onset of a new season. Affect is a psychiatric term for mood, not that you become super efficient or anything like that! It can happen in any season. I have a friend who always goes low in mood during the summer months, however, it is much more common for people with this disorder to become low in mood during the autumn and winter months. Listed below are some of the range of symptoms you can get. As always it’s not exhaustive and comes from 2 different trusted websites :
- Low mood, worse than and different from normal sadness
- Negative thoughts and feelings
- Guilt and loss of self-esteem
- Sometimes hopelessness and despair
- Sometimes apathy and inability to feel
- The need to sleep more
- A tendency to oversleep
- Difficulty staying awake during the day and/or disturbed sleep with
very early morning wakening
- Fatigue, often incapacitating, making it very difficult or impossible to carry out normal routines
- Craving for carbohydrates and sweet foods leading to an increase in weight
- Difficulty with concentration and memory
- The brain does not work as well, or as quickly
- Finding it harder to be with people
- Stress is harder to deal with
Loss of Libido
- Less interest in sex and physical contact
Sudden Mood Changes in Spring
- Sharp change in mood
- Some experience agitation and restlessness and/or a short period of
hypomania (over activity)
- No dramatic mood change but a gradual loss of winter symptoms
OK Here is the really crappy thing: it comes back. For those of you lucky enough not to have experienced clinical depression before please read my entries on depression and suicide to get a flavour of what it’s like. Having depression is a bit like being an Easter egg: looks nice and normal on the outside but once you take the wrapping off it’s just hollow and disappointing on the inside. Coping with depression just once is hard enough but having to live with the knowledge that it is a long term condition takes the biscuit!
As those of you who follow me on twitter, or who have read my book (blatant book plug) will know I have had cancer and have to live with the fact that it might return. I guess that qualifies me as having a long term condition. Anyway, having a long term condition like SAD is kind of like pacing yourself for a marathon. I frequently say to my patients, and myself when I want to go and splurge on chocolate or wine, that sensible is not glamorous, sensible generally is not fun, sensible is definitely not fair. However, sensible keeps me alive, sensible helps my mental health, sensible ensures that I see tomorrow with my lovely family.
Any long term condition requires you to be as healthy as possible. That means eating the right sorts of food. People who have SAD tend to want more carbohydrates. A way around this is to keep a record of what you eat. It need not be as prescriptive as they do at Weight Watchers but just keeping a note of what you put in your mouth. There may be a pattern to it that you were unaware of before. If there is, then it can be planned for. I am not suggesting having a set amount of carbs per day, but perhaps a weekly upper limit that you are comfortable with. So if you want to pig out on Wednesday that’s ok but try not to on Saturday – you get my drift? If carbs are your weakness, clean out and detox your kitchen, if it’s not there you can’t eat it! Food is my weakness, I eat too much.
Micro nutrients. Vitamins A,D,E,K; C and B complex and the full range of minerals is essential to proper brain function. Vitamins C and B complex are water soluble so you urinate them out daily and it can be very difficult to overdose on the (please don’t go trying or I will laugh at you, you complete plank!). Vitamins A,D, E, and K are fat soluble, which mean that they require fat to be absorbed into your body. In return they can be stored in your fat supplies, thus making is easier to take too many. That said the western diet is so shitty that most people NEED a radical overhaul of it to even get anything close to the correct balance of nutrients. Which is why supplement companies make a fortune! There is plenty written on the internet about food and mood. Most of it is quite good and sensible; don’t go for any weird and wonderful advice because it is normally shit; you have been warned. For a more technical take I would recommend ‘Changing Minds, Changing Diets’ by Courtney Van de Weyer. It was published in 2005 so the research is a little dated but the principles are there and it is easy to read, if you like that sort of thing (I am an unashamed geek – deal with it!).
What to do. Roughly a portion of carbs is the of your fist. Yes that’s right small isn’t it. One portion per meal! A portion is meat is about the same as a computer mouse, a portion of cheese is only the of a match box. The rest should be fresh veg, cooked so that it retains its goodness; not to a uniform yellow where if you put your ear close to it you can hear crying from the last vitamin alive because it is lonely! So boring things keep you healthy: at least 5 portions of fruit and veg per day, smaller portions than you are used to, keep a food diary.
Light boxes. These are sometimes recommended for suffers of SAD. The theory behind it is that the body requires more of the right kind of light that is not always readily available during the winter months. There are dawn lights which start to brighten up the room at a set time in the morning helping sufferers get out of bed, as sleeping loads and finding it difficult to get up in the morning are symptoms of SAD. There is evidence out there that this can help. However, if it works for you, great, but it does not work for everyone. On top of that the benefits may only be slight and go unnoticed until you stop using the light box. My personal stance would be that if it’s not doing you any harm keep going, unless you really don’t want to, then stop. Simple really.
Exercise. OK I am no exercise Nazi I promise. I have been everything from a couch potato to and exercise fanatic and back to a couch potato, and all points in between. I know that when you don’t feel like it, even a slow walk around the block is a huge effort but I do know that usually after I’ve done it I feel mentally a bit better. Cardio is the key. Doing weights and stuff like that requires a lot of mental focus and motivation but dragging your sorry arse out for a 15 minute walk is do-able. Most places have classes on and going with a mate is a great way of ensuring that you at least go. If it is only one class per week that is one evening where you are not slumped in front of the tv seeing if you can really overdose on Pringles (I’ve tested that one out and I can tell you that it is NOT possible no matter how hard you try). Mix it up, keep it fun. If you don’t enjoy the exercise you won’t do it. I don’t care if it’s Zumba or pole dancing, tap dancing might be your thing…anything to get your body moving and have a laugh!
Socialisation. Strangely people find me easy to talk to and tell me their problems – it makes me good at my job. Of my friends in real life (as we say on twitter) we have an agreement that we go to each other with our problems. That old nagging feeling of ‘well everyone has a lot on their plate’ has been done away with and replaced with ‘I would be offended if they did not feel that they could come to me with their problems so I will share mine with them’. Having a network of people to turn to is a good plan, even if it’s just to get you out of yourself and away from your negative thoughts. Planning nights out, or days out is a great way of breaking up weeks and the monotony of feeling so low. It gets you involved in the world around you, gives you things to aim for.
Professional help. It is out there and available, rather than bore the pants off you even more and make this rather long blog entry longer. Please see my other post on depression. From a clinical perspective I have no worries about someone with SAD coming to see me in the winter and being discharged from my caseload in the summer.
SAD like clinical depression is way more than feeling a bit blue for a couple of days. It is a dark, deep, pit of blackness – pretty damn hellish! If you suffer from it and have been diagnosed, I suspect that this post holds no surprises for you. If you think you have these symptoms get your ass to a health care professional and stop diagnosing yourself off the internet *rolls eyes*. Try and take care of yourself, you are special even if you don’t feel like that today.