Each year, as the summer comes to a close, I find myself quite looking forward to winter. I think of all the soups I’ll have, and getting my beloved jumpers out of storage. I think of orange leaves, gorgeous soft scarves, mugs of hot wine, long walks in the park followed by warming back up in front of a roaring pub fire. I look ahead fondly to cosy days and festive nights. I’m excited, right up until the point it’s actually cold out, and my seasonal depression has swept in on a brisk north easterly wind to mess everything up.
Seasonal affective disorder (often referred to as SAD) is a heightening of depression symptoms in either the summer or the winter. Mine arrives around October, and usually doesn’t fully fuck off until March. The sky darkens and I darken, too. The temperature drops and something inside me plummets. When this happens I’m forced to act as a weather vane for my own emotional states, trying to predict which way my mood is going to swing so I can plan accordingly around work and other life obligations. I’ve been negatively affected by the winter weather for most of my teens and all of my adult life, but each year still feels like a surprise and a steep learning curve.
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Managing seasonal affective disorder feels like its own full time job. My energy levels dip and my motivation for most things vanishes. I leave all of my work to the very last minute, cry at strange things, go numb for days and days, struggle to read or write or hold my focus on anything for more than a few minutes, get headaches and phantom aches, want to sleep constantly in the day and then at night struggle terribly with insomnia. Often in winter my bed feels like the safest place to be — sometimes the only place I can stand to be. It asks nothing of me, being there in bed. I can wail and sob and sniffle and fall asleep and wake up and there’s nobody to witness or criticise or suggest there are more productive things to be doing. I can plug in my phone and scroll mindlessly on the internet until that becomes intolerable and then I can put a film or TV show until the same thing happens. It’s not comforting exactly, all this bed. It doesn’t feel like a lovely, lazy, escapist, self-care kind of bed rest. It’s just all I can manage. If I cannot do something while horizontal then often I cannot do it at all. Something in me collapses during the change in weather and all I can face is lying down, sleeping, and perhaps sipping some water if I’m feeling fancy.
There’s a great deal of shame attached to feeling so crappy for months on end. It’s hard explaining my absence at parties and work events, my diminished ability to socialise and earn a living. I so badly want to feel better, to do more living in the world and less rotting in bed.
It’s tough to feel better when SAD is giving your psyche an absolutely battering, but it isn’t impossible. After years of suffering through it I’ve managed to pick up a few handy tips and tricks. I’ve learned that rest is king, and any attempt to avoid this truth is futile. Not all rest is created equal, though, and proper sleep hygiene is incredibly important. Where possible, invest in good quality bedding and try to implement whatever bedtime routine can work around your lifestyle. Keep technology out of your bed as much as you can, and try to unwind on your phone and laptop elsewhere if you can.
For the mornings I use a sunrise alarm clock alongside a gentle alarm sound, which save me from being launched directly into a sensory hell every day upon waking — they’re not cheap but it’s made an enormous difference. I also begin my workday half an hour or an hour later than I do in the spring and summer and where possible schedule important meetings later in the day. I also have a SAD lamp which I use on especially gloomy days, and whenever the sun is shining I try my best to get outside (even just a foot beyond my doorstep) and let it fall on my head and face for at least 15 minutes. I modify activities if I’m not able to do them as planned — a short walk instead of a run, a stroll on the treadmill rather than a full gym session, a coffee with a mate instead of a big night out.
You’ve heard of SAD in the winter, but seasonal depression in the summer is very real too – here’s how to cope with summertime sadness
It’s not just a Lana Del Ray song.
Most vital of all is holding out for the good day, the days where you can keep your head mostly above water and manage to feel glimpses of hopefulness and resilience. Days where winter sun filters through the window, warming your cheek. Days where you do most, if not all, of what you intended to do. Days where you don’t feel overwhelmed and furious, upset and dislocated from any and all potential futures. Days where you can make it outside for a walk or to see a friend or even just into a bath full of hot water and bubbles with a good book. If winter is a slow inching forward instead of a joyful gallop, so be it. Do your best, take your meds and try to end each day on something kind and gentle. The rest can wait until spring.
Talking to a GP may be necessary if your mood feels like it’s dropping further and further and you’re not coping. You can read more about SAD on the NHS website here.
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