Living with SAD
Sitting here with the sun streaming through my bay window it is odd to think that I’m writing a piece on living with SAD, but for me, thinking about SAD now, when the sun is out and before the clocks go back it is a good time to do so. Maybe if you struggle with winter now is the perfect time to put some of these into place if you haven’t tried them before.
What is SAD? SAD is a form of depression brought on by shortened daylight hours and lack of sunlight, said to be experienced by approximately 2% of the UK population. For about 20% of the UK population, Sub-syndromal SAD is mildly debilitating symptoms of SAD that cause discomfort but not serious suffering. (SADA http://www.sada.org.uk)
Why am I writing about SAD, what qualifies me to do this? Well I’ve been living with it for as long as I can remember and I have more or less worked out for me how to manage it so that it is not totally overwhelming/debilitating. Below are a few thoughts on what I do, I don’t know it all by any means, but I do know what works for me, and on some I still have work to do. Some may be new to you and some you may have already tried. If you’ve tried them previously and found them not to work it may be time to revisit them? For example I tried previously with the eating and then decided it didn’t make that much of a difference, now I know it to make a vital difference but it took a while and a few attempts to acknowledge this.
So in no particular order:
Lights - I use a Lumie desk lamp both on my dressing table and when I eat breakfast, I also use it during the mid-winter period anytime that I am sitting working on my computer. These lights are not cheap, but they are worth their weight in gold as far as I am concerned! And Lumie also do a free trial before you buy so it is worth investigating. The higher the lux the stronger the light and the less time you need to sit in front of it. Mine is 10,000 lux. I also have a body clock which wakes me more naturally as the light gently brightens, if you don’t wake then there is a beep feature too. I am usually awake before this point and switch it off before that rude beep! www.lumie.com
Daylight – Spend some time outdoors every day. I am now very fortunate that as I am self-employed I run my own schedule to allow me time outside each day, but even when I was employed I made sure I took a walk outside at lunchtime. Even on the dullest days it makes a difference. Now I walk the dog around lunchtime (the brightest part of even the dullest day) particularly in mid-winter when the days are so short. It is not Christmas (more on this later) that I await in December it is the Solstice, the 21st, so I know that I have passed the shortest day and the days start to get a little longer from then.
Yoga – Always yoga! My yoga is vital to me, without it I become stiff, sullen and snappy! & even more so in winter. Why do I think this is vital? Because I know that when I am down/depressed/SAD/whatever I have previously dropped yoga from my schedule because I haven’t got time or I can’t be bothered or I don’t feel like it. This is the very time I need it most. For me I have learned what I now need from yoga at any particular time, but this has taken years. At first I just knew that anything I actually did made me feel better, so it was just a case of forcing/encouraging myself to get the mat out or turn up at a class, and I would feel better afterwards. And if I didn’t, and there were many times I didn’t, I felt worse. Now it might be some restorative yoga I need, or a good flowing sequence or some more breathing and meditation but anything is always better than nothing!
With breathing for me I know that Nadi Shodhana or alternative nostril breathing is so important. This is what it says, a focus on breathing through alternative nostrils. It really helps with that balance, not too much stimulation but equally not too much relaxation. When I am down/depressed/SAD/whatever my preference is often for static asana (posture), especially Savasana (corpse pose) and yoga nidra but I know that too much at that point can be counter-productive, so the alternate nostril breathing gives me that amazing and much needed balance.
Maybe yoga is not your thing? But move somehow, anyhow! Motion shifts emotion, so walk, swim, bike, skip, run, climb whatever it is that floats your boat!
Eating well - When I am down/depressed/SAD/whatever I would quite happily live on white bread and butter, cake, ready salted crisps and cups of tea. This is not a good diet! (I know this now, I didn’t always believe this). But it is what I crave in winter. Sometimes I still eat these but know with absolute certainty that I will feel worse if I carry on with them. I do still allow myself indulgences of them occasionally but have to encourage myself to eat protein and lots of veggies. I love a hugely colourful plateful so challenge myself to get six or more colours on a plate when eating. I am, however, still working on this!
Alone time – I am an introvert, a gregarious introvert but an introvert non-the-less. I need time alone to recoup my energy. I also know that I need a balance in each day and each week of time alone and time spent in company (in relation to both work and leisure time). And I can get the balance wrong – too much alone time can be as counter-productive as too much company!
Winter holiday – we now take our holiday in winter, sometimes February, but more recently December. This works well for me, it gives me that boost of sunshine and rest that I need in order to get through the rest of winter, for you it maybe that you need it a little later in the season. We go somewhere warm (with more or less guaranteed sunshine and longer day length) for at least a week. In an ideal world I’d live where it was summer all year round! This is unlikely to happen in this lifetime J but I’m working towards it…
Not too much festivity – Winter celebrations – aka Christmas! I don’t really like Christmas, it is not something that I have come to admit lightly. I find it hard work because of when it is as well as the jollity of it all, and the shopping (I hate shopping!). All I want to do is hide under the duvet and ‘people’ expect me to want to go out and socialise, repeatedly, with other people that I may barely know just because we have a little bit of a connection. I am choosy in what I do in relation to these celebrations. I say yes to some things but no to others. I know that I cannot do repeated late nights (more of which later) and I know that I cannot do repeated big gatherings (see above). Some people (I’m told) may feel I’m selfish in this but I know what I need to do to keep me healthy, and I have previously tried to do far more than I knew was healthy in an attempt to please others. Knowing myself so much better now helps me to say No. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like you or want your company; it just means that I can’t do it all and I can’t do it then. Invite me in the spring for a lunch rather than a Christmas dinner and I’ll be there like a shot
Sleep – I need 8 hours, I can just about manage on 7, less than 7 and things start falling apart rapidly. Repeated nights of less than 7 hours have me a gibbering wreck within a week! But much more than 8 and I become comatose and want to stay in bed, so once again it is that balance. And my yoga certainly helps me sleep much more soundly than I ever used to do. More yoga = better sleep = better Pam!
Reading – I love reading but I lose the capacity to read when I am depressed. This for me is one of my earliest indicators that something is not good for me. I love a good novel but when I find that I have read the page/paragraph three times and still don’t know what is happening then I know it is time to take a good look at myself and see what I need to do to rectify this for me. I know to watch for it now.
This too will pass – My four favourite words, they help with so many situations! I had heard them before but they became real for me during my yoga training in Mexico. With SAD knowing that winter will end, that spring will spring again and that the sun will shine is so valuable. We will not be in the depths of winter for ever, and knowing I will feel better, knowing I will have more energy again, knowing I will want to go out and share times with friends again helps even if at the time I don’t have those things. Even though this is in relation to SAD those four little words help me in ‘regular’ depression too, knowing that I will not always feel like this, this too will pass, makes it far more manageable to deal with at the time, but that has been a long lesson to learn.
Do what you love – I was in a job that didn’t fit with my beliefs and values, I was unhappy. Being unhappy does not make you depressed, but it certainly didn’t help the state of my mental health. Walking away from a job is not an easy thing to do. In my case I was fortunate as a severance package made it an easier choice. I now do what I love – teaching yoga and workshops – and it certainly contributes to me being healthier and happier, though I still have work to do on that work/life balance!
Smile/laugh – This section may sound contradictory… Put on a smile or laugh, even when you don’t feel like it. The brain does not know the difference between the real and the fake and by using these muscles (facial & belly) it sends signals to the brain that you are happy. When depressed it is probably the last thing you feel like doing but it works. Laughter Yoga works for me so well, I can fake laugh and instantly have a mood lift, I can put on a huge smile even when I feel like crying and it does make a difference, sometimes a little difference sometimes a bigger difference. And that fake/false smile/laugh can and does turn real.
But, and it is a big BUT, don’t just put on that false/fake smile and pretend to the world that everything is alright. It is about what is going on for you that is important. When someone asks ‘How are you?’ we may reply ‘yes I’m fine’, and that is often appropriate, but when someone close asks how you are, if you are not fine then don’t say you are! Tell them you need a hug, tell them you are struggling and could do with some help, tell them you need some time out, to just to ‘be’ for a while. I am trying to say not to hide yourself behind that fake smile, particularly when you need support, but that it is still important to do it for you to lift your mood. Said it might appear contradictory!
Be happy – Ok, glib comment here maybe! But not really, focussing on happiness really has made a difference to me. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin is just one of a long line of self-help books that I have read and done and that has helped me understand me. This one made such an impact that with a friend (thanks Lynne) we set up The HEY Happiness Group to keep a focus on happiness. When you are in the depths of depression someone from outside telling you to be happy is absolutely the last thing you want, I know I’ve been there, but from inside, when you work out what makes you happy and do that thing/those things regularly as part of your routine it really does make a difference. (But it does have to be what makes you happy, not what you think will make you happy because it makes others happy!)
Ask for help – Get the troops to rally round! This is not being lazy or not coping (both things I have previously told myself); this is a good tool in your toolkit of coping mechanisms. Ask for help, whether it is little or bigger things. I have a fabulous family and support network but I still sometime struggle to ask for help when I need it. This could be just telling someone about your SAD and asking them to mention to you if they notice that things are not quite usual, particularly in those winter months. This could be at home or at work. But ask them to do it gently and with love. If you are anything like me you may take their genuine concern for your welfare and offers of support as criticism and go into defensive mode!
Talk – or perhaps write? Tell people about it, just what I’m doing here. I didn’t always discuss the fact that I struggle/am blessed with depression. Now I am much more open about it and I find it easier to deal with when it comes. I am as open as I can be about the fact that I have had depression. I also find it easier to discuss once it has passed, not while I am in the middle/muddle of it! Seriously, talk to me then and I may well deny it, alternatively I may just dissolve in a puddle!
My depression is usually seasonal but not always. I put struggle/am blessed with in the previous paragraph because that is how I feel about how depression affects me. ‘Struggle’ because it is often a struggle; but ‘am blessed with’ because I truly believe it has made me the person I am today and that is a much more empathetic and considerate one than I used to be.
Not taking on too much – I am very guilty of thinking I can do everything and getting it done by tomorrow at the very latest! I am enthusiastic about new projects and love to learn. This means I say yes to things, get fired up and want to do whatever it is and learn everything about it! Then I have no energy left to deal with everything, including the new thing. And then I have to back off and say no, and sometimes let people down (which I hate doing!) So I now try and curb my enthusiasm so that I get the balance right (that word again – I am Libra!) of being involved and doing things but not taking on too much. Again, I am still working on this one!
Drugs – prescription ones, obviously! I have used anti-depressants in the past. I no longer use them as I don’t feel I need them, I now control my SAD with all the other tools I’ve mentioned above. But I have used them and found they worked for me. Some are better than others and some have more side-effects than others. I found the ones that worked for me and if I had a bad winter/period and couldn’t control my depression with other methods I would certainly go back to my GP and ask for them (by name) again. There was a point in my life that I thought I would always need a regular dose of anti-depressant, I’m not there any longer, I believe, because of the things above.
When SAD isn’t SAD – Sometimes SAD isn’t SAD, even though most of the time my depression is seasonal it hasn’t always been the case. If you think that you have SAD and you are not starting to feel more motivated, having more energy, having more joy of life by March/Spring then maybe it is not SAD. The longer days, the sunshine, the warmer weather, the daffodils should start to make a difference when they come, if not, it may be that you are not dealing with SAD this time.
Relax, laugh, flourish J
The above are opinions of Pam Medhurst, the definitions of SAD and sub-SAD are from www.SADA.org. I am happy to discuss this writing if anyone wants to ask questions or pose an alternative. I am also happy to try new things in relation to managing SAD going forwards so feel free to contact me.