I think Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) was probably the first mental health issue I ever knew about.
If you’re not super familiar (and you may not be, if you live closer to the equator than I do), here’s a quick definition from the Mayo Clinic: “Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody.”
I first heard about SAD from a friend who self-identified as having it around middle school.
I grew up in New Brunswick, which has terribly snowy and cold winters, although there is still a fair amount of sun. Its impact wasn’t very real for me until I moved to Vancouver, however.
Affectionately known by many as Raincouver, part of the notoriously rainy Pacific Northwest, and quite near to the rainiest place in North America (Henderson Lake, Vancouver Island), Vancouver borders the biggest temperate rainforest in the world.
I regularly say that Vancouver has two seasons: “rainy,” and “hot and less rainy.” The “rainy” season runs from about October through April, and the “hot and less rainy” season is (clearly) May through September. Usually every rainy season, we have at least a span of 20 days without sun. They’re not necessarily all wet, but most of them are. This January, we had 24 rainy days in a row, and October and November 2016 had 47 days of rain.
Long story short, it’s wet here. It’s also grey.
And because we’re in Canada, from November to March it’s also pretty dark. I know we’ve got nothing on northern Europe, the Canadian territories, or Alaska, but on the darkest day of the year, the sun rises at 08:05 and sets at 16:16. When I was in Williams Lake for the 2014-15 school year, on the darkest day of the year the sun rose at 08:15 and set at 15:58.
All of this is a pretty perfect recipe for SAD, especially for someone already prone to depression and anxiety.
For years I’ve had suspicions, but I think this year is the first time I’ve actually fully acknowledged that on top of generalized anxiety and periodic depression, I also have SAD. Looking back on it, my first serious experience with it was probably my first year in Vancouver when I was a freshman at UBC. I missed my husband (then boyfriend), I missed my family and all of my friends, and I was going through that stressful first-year university time when I realized that school was actually going to be hard for once.
Now I recognize that it usually starts in early November, and kicks around until mid to late March. Does this time period sound familiar?
My SAD symptoms
When I’m in the midst of SAD, I sleep more but don’t feel more rested. I usually fall asleep within minutes of starting to read in bed, when normally I can stay up reading for an hour or more. Accordingly, I end up sleeping about an hour more per night (usually about 9pm – 6am).
I also drink more coffee. Both because I feel more tired, and because it’s my comfort drink, and I find myself seeking mental and physical comfort more than usual. In the depths of SAD, all I want to do is curl up on the couch with five blankets and pillows, sipping on a steaming mug of coffee goodness, scrolling my Instagram feed, and poking my nose out occasionally to search for a tiny sliver of nonexistent sun.
I feel listless, tired, burnt out, unmotivated, and down.
Getting out of bed in the morning is so hard. I dread going to work. My job is awesome and I love it, and I always feel fine once I get there, but in the midst of SAD, I do not want to go.
How do you know you’re not just depressed, you ask? Well…
When the sun occasionally comes out, I have the best day of my life.
I think this is how I finally realized I was dealing with SAD. It was a Saturday, and the sun had come out after that above-mentioned stretch of 24 rainy days. I woke up earlier, my energy was up, I was ultra-productive, and I just felt so happy. At some point early in the day, my husband turned and looked at me, and said in surprise, “You’re super happy today.”
My response was, “Yup! It’s sunny! And nice! and I feel good! YAY!”
It was pretty black and white.
After having this epiphany, I knew I needed to write about it on the blog.
That was two months ago.
I find it hilariously and incredibly affirming that I’ve only been able to sit down and write this post now I’m in recovery. SAD is real, people, I don’t make this shit up!
Strategies I use to help with SAD
- Vitamin D. I have no idea if this actually works, but I take it every day of the rainy season. I think it helps? It might just be placebo, but I’ll take it. The Globe and Mail says that Health Canada’s recommended daily intake of vitamin D for people aged 1-70 is 600 IU per day.
- Exercise. I’ve already talked a lot about how exercise is one of my main sources of self-care, as is a regular sleep schedule. These are fantastic when I’m not under a dark cloud. During SAD-season, they barely keep me above water, but at least they do that. It doesn’t help when my runs have me swimming in icy cold rainwater.
- Extra sleep. I’m an advocate of giving my body what it’s asking for, so when my eyes want to close two pages into my book instead of 50, I let them.
I think recognition is the most important part of all of this.
This year it was a lot easier to handle SAD because I realized what I was dealing with. I made sure to really soak up the sun every time it came out. My 5x weekly half-marathon training schedule made sure that I was usually outside on sunny days. If it was an off-day, I tried to make sure I got outside, even briefly, anyway.
I also really worked hard to bottle the sunshine inside of me. On those rare sunny days, I would sit in a pool of it on the floor just like a cat. I’d meditate on how amazing it made me feel. Then, I would package that feeling up. I’d imagine locking it into a special compartment in my heart. I could pull it out when I needed it.
Finally, I just did what my body wanted. I drank more coffee. Got cozy more often. I snuggled with my magic bag a lot. I slept more, took care of myself.
Happy first day of Spring! Here’s to hoping the rainy season (or snowy season, for those of you not in Vancouver) is on its way out.
Peace, love, and heart compartments full of bottled sunshine,
P.S. – Next post on self-care for anxiety is coming soon!