By the end of August, I begin to hear people talk about Fall and say how excited they are to carve pumpkins, wear warm sweaters and enjoy a PSL (pumpkin spied laté). Even though I typically respond by saying something like “me too”, or “omg I can’t wait”, I can’t help but feel like I am telling a white lie. This is because deep down, I know that I am forcing these feelings upon myself, because I want to like fall, and I think that faking it might actually change my attitude. The hard thing about fall is that I have to accept that the seasons are changing, and there is nothing I can do about it.
The truth is, I hate fall, and as someone who suffers with seasonal affective disorder, this is my most dreaded time of year.
Someone I know shared this totally relatable “Harry Potter” meme on Facebook the other day, and I can’t get over how amazingly “spot-on” it is. Whenever the fall rolls around, I find myself in a mental health crisis, and I didn’t even realize it was happening right before my eyes! Before I know it, I am feeling sad, demotivated and unable to get myself out of bed in the morning. Much like this meme, by the time I finally realize I am getting depressed, I am able to put the puzzle pieces together and blame stress, a lack of sunshine, poor eating/food cravings, non-existent sleep, a lack of exercise, and not booking a counselling appointment (because I was feeling great up until that point). It’s the perfect storm that sets me up for a depressive episode EVERY year!
Sure, Fall should be all about carving pumpkins, getting lost in a corn maze, and going to haunted houses, but the thing I’m the most afraid of during this season is falling back into a deep, dark depression.
The CAMH defines Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as a “type of depression that occurs during the same season each year” (CAMH, n.d.). SAD is believed to be influenced by the changing patterns of light and darkness that occur in the winter (Sleep Foundation, n.d.). It typically occurs in the fall or winter, but it can also occur in the spring or summer (CAMH, n.d.). In my personal experience, some of the symptoms I have during the fall and winter months include a very sad mood that lasts weeks, a loss of interest in hobbies like exercise, feeling useless and irritable, trouble making decisions and concentrating, crying a lot, and weight gain. Sleep is no joke, as I often find myself awake into unusually late hours in the night. It seems that regardless of how much sleep I get, I find myself unable to wake up in the morning and feeling tired during the day. I find that I experience these symptoms throughout the entire winter, and once the spring hits, everything seems to fall back into place, and all is well again.
So why does this happen?
The earth rotates around the sun once per year, and it rotates on an axis every 24-hours bringing forth changes in sunlight and temperature that make up the seasons, and the day/night respectively. As the seasons change and fall/winter begins, the amount of sunlight that reaches our side of the world decreases, causing biological and behavioural responses in animals including hibernation, and the change in the colour of the leaves in plants. These seasonal responses occur as a result of the organism’s circadian rhythm being influenced by the reduction in light. Humans are no exception, as we too have circadian rhythms that are regulated by the sunlight. A circadian rhythm is essentially a 24-hour internal clock that regulates hormone production, the sleep-wake cycle and body temperature in humans. Circadian rhythms are typically set by changes in sunlight, however, they can also run in the absence of light. Individuals with SAD may be more sensitive to the seasonal changes in light than others. In individuals with SAD, the changing patterns of light during the change in seasons disrupts the circadian rhythm causing fatigue, low mood, hypersomnia (an increase in sleep), and insomnia (lack of sleep).
When the circadian rhythm is disrupted, the body’s production of serotonin and melatonin is also disrupted. Essentially, the reduction in sunlight that is associated with the fall/winter causes a reduction in Vitamin D absorption, which disrupts serotonin production. Serotonin plays a role in the regulation of mood and the sleep/wake cycle, and a disruption in serotonin causes both mood and sleep disturbances. An increase in fatigue that is experienced in the fall/winter can also be attributed to an increase in darkness, which causes more melatonin (a sleep hormone) to be produced by the body, making you feel more tired. Putting together all of these factors contributes to many of the signs and symptoms associated with seasonal affective disorder, such as a depressed mood, oversleeping (hypersomnia), insomnia, and increased irritability.
So… now that I find myself here again, how do I possibly cope?
Over the years, I have learned a few key lessons in dealing with my anxiety and seasonal depression. Whenever I find myself overwhelmed, stressed, or unable to cope, I try to take a step back from the situation and determine what I cannot control, versus what I can control. I try to find strategies to accept the things I cannot control, and work to utilize the things I can control.
Determine the things you CAN control, and control them.
The Things I Cannot Control: I cannot control the fact that the seasons are changing. This is a natural part of life, and it brings about fun activities, beautiful fall colours, and thanksgiving. I cannot control the fact that the earth is rotating, providing me with sub-optimal sunshine, and messing with my circadian rhythm.
The Things I CAN Control: Sure, this time of year is my least favourite, and I fear that I might fall back into a depression. I am lucky to have been through a few major depressive episodes in my past, and have learned how climb out of the pit that is depression. With time, I have learned some coping mechanisms that I can implement, such as seeking counselling, and trying “light therapy”. Even though I do not always want to exercise or be active, I can control the activities I do by making time to go for a walk, or going to the gym with a friend. Even though I cannot control the time I fall asleep each night, I can control the time I wake up each morning. Waking up at the same time every day will help to reset my circadian rhythm. Finally, I can control the foods that fuel my body. I can add in one vegetable with each meal, and snack on fruit to nourish my body.
Now that I can have distinguished what I can control versus what I cannot control, I can create a game plan. Below, I will go through the aspects of my life I am currently trying to control to help me cope with (and hopefully prevent) seasonal affective disorder.
1. Reach out for help ASAP
Be proactive and book a counselling appointment in anticipation that this will happen EVER YEAR
In the summer, I find that I always cope well, and do not need to access counselling or other treatment services, because I am doing well. By the end of September or early October, this is no longer the case for me, and I am in need of counselling or other forms of treatment. The biggest issue with counselling or seeing a doctor is that appointments typically have a 2-week waitlist to get in. In my experience, by the time I actually book a counselling appointment, I’m already in a bad place, and I can’t wait the two weeks.
Even if you find yourself feeling great, with no signs of mental health issues, I’d recommend you book an appointment with your doctor or counsellor. Even as a means to just “check up” with your mental health and make sure you are doing alright. Worst case scenario, you can cancel your appointment if you really don’t need it, as long as you give a few days notice.
This year, I luckily booked a counselling appointment a few weeks ago, because I wasn’t sure if I would need it or not. Now that my appointment is on Monday, I am very pleased that I booked it, because everything went downhill for me within the span of two weeks. I am in desperate need of the appointment right now, and am so thankful I thought ahead to book it.
If you find yourself already struggling, I’d still recommend booking an appointment with your doctor or counsellor ASAP. The sooner you reach out for help, the sooner you can start to manage your symptoms.
2. Get more sunlight or try Light Therapy
Since SAD is mainly influenced by the changes in light that are associated with the fall/winter, it is important to still try and expose yourself to sunlight. This year, my mom gave me a light box, that I have been using each morning upon waking. The light box is supposed to simulate sunlight, and it is a promising therapy for depression. The light stimulates the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the brain, which is responsible for controlling the sleep/wake cycle. Exposing oneself to light helps the body produce melatonin at the appropriate times, allowing you to fall asleep at night and awake easier in the morning. If you do not have access to light therapy, try maximizing sun exposure throughout the day by going outside, or working beside a window. Increasing your exposure to natural light will work in a similar manner to light therapy.
3. Stick with a routine
In order to help restore your circadian rhythm, it is important to make sure that you go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning. This allows your body to better regulate hormone production, the sleep-wake cycle and body temperature. If you find yourself struggling to fall asleep at night, you can try taking a melatonin supplement (anywhere from 3 to 10 milligrams) before you go to bed at night. This will help you fall asleep, as your body naturally produces melatonin which helps you fall asleep at night. If you find yourself taking melatonin every night for an entire month, the bottle recommends that you contact your physician to help with sleep difficulties.
In my personal experience, I struggle with both insomnia and hypersomnia it seems. Basically, I find myself unable to fall asleep at night (until 3 or even 5 in the morning), then once I fall asleep, I cannot wake up (no matter how hard I try). My counsellor told me that, “I cannot control the time I fall asleep at night, but I can better control the time I wake up each morning”. I live by this statement, and whenever I find my sleep schedule is struggling, I change what I can control, and I force myself to wake up at the same time each morning (regardless of how little sleep I got that night). Obviously, you want to be reasonable, and not force yourself to wake up too early, however, it is a great strategy to help reset your clock. I try to begin by waking at 9am each morning, and every few days wake up 10-15 minutes earlier, until I wake up at 7:30am or 8:30am.
As mentioned above, serotonin is an important neurotransmitter that helps to regulate your mood and your sleep/wake cycle. Exercise helps to produce serotonin, which will help to cause an elevation in mood, and a better sleep! Try to engage in activities that you enjoy, as it will be much easier to build something you enjoy into your schedule. For me personally, I have joined a synchronized swimming team at school, and I intend to continue going to the gym a minimum of twice per week. If you can exercise outside, this may also help because you get the added benefit of sunlight exposure, which will help reset your circadian rhythm!
5. Curb Cravings and Enjoy Healthy Foods
Many people with SAD (myself included) find themselves with heavy cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods, such as breads. The reasons why we crave these foods is that they temporarily boost the serotonin levels in the brain, offering an elevation in mood and an increase in energy. Carbohydrate cravings are more likely to occur at the end of the day/evening, and these cravings are often the cause of the seemingly uncontrollable weight gain that occurs throughout the winter months. To maintain some control over carbohydrate cravings, I would recommend that you try to create healthier alternatives that you enjoy just as much as the unhealthy foods. Some examples of healthier snack alternatives includes popcorn, bananas, or hummus and crackers. Further, it is a good strategy to eat healthier carbs with dinner, as it may help to reduce late night cravings. Some healthy alternatives I try to eat include sweet potatoes, brown rice, or lentils.
6. Socialize and Join in the Fun
In the Fall I find it easy to “fall” (no pun intended) into social isolation as I lose motivation to leave the house due to my “poor mood”. Socializing with others is a great strategy to boost your mood and fight against SAD. Being social can cause the release of oxytocin in the brain, which supports the release of serotonin. In my experience, the more I connect with others, the better I feel. Even on days when I don’t feel like leaving the house, I often find myself glad that I left the house and talked with friends.
What’s the point of Fall if you don’t allow yourself to enjoy it. Sure, for some Fall is full of cheesy activities like carving pumpkins. However, since you can’t beat it, you might as well join it. Find small things to make the Fall a little more bearable – walking in the crisp leaves always leaves a smile on my face. Carve pumpkins with your friends, or have a Halloween themed dinner party. I understand it may be one of the last things you want to do, but pushing yourself out of your comfort zone may actually help your symptoms. This year, I am challenging myself to jump into the leaves and actually partake in the festivities.
I really hope that this article met you well, and it sheds some light into my experience living with Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Over the years I have learned to anticipate SAD, and as much as it sucks, I now feel like I understand what is happening with my body and why I feel the way I do. I am curious if other people out there struggle with seasonal affective disorder, and whether they have found other means of coping with it? Please leave me a comment with your experience below!
I created an infograph about Seasonal Affective disorder below for my fellow Pinterest users! If you are not following me on social media, be sure to do so as a post a lot of additional content on Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube!