Like most people in Charleston, I’m originally from Ohio.
One of the (many) reasons that we moved here was not, actually, because of the amazing temperatures or lack of snow. Close - but not quite.
In Ohio, the skies are gray for 75-80% of the year. As I was getting older, the change in season from bright, shiny summer to rainy, cloudy fall…. And winter… and spring… took more of a toll on me than I was happy with.
My mom (who happily lives in Florida nowadays), similarly, had struggled with this through most of her adult life as well, so it was something that I was familiar with and was able to recognize as it got worse.
And for me, personally, each year that we lived there, that grey cloud that seemed to rest right over me each winter just got heavier and heavier.
So living in a place where, even most of the time when it's cold, the sun is shining? I was all the way in. And I've noticed a huge shift in how I feel most of the time in the winter, just by being able to see more sunshine, more often.
Last week, here in Charleston - with the time change, the darkness earlier in the day hit me hard. And then on top of it, this week we have had days upon days of rain - so I can tell you honestly that finding energy and desire to power through my endless to-dos has been rough for me.
And I know I’m not alone, so today let’s talk about seasonal affective disorder and what to do about it.
Photo by Ferdinand Stöhr on Unsplash
Symptoms of SAD
SAD is a type of clinical depression, the difference is that it literally comes and goes with the seasons. Most commonly, people notice this disorder in winter or in the summer months.
Depression looks like: not being interested in your normal activities, feeling lethargic (without being sick with a cold, flu, etc), unexplained sleep disturbances, feeling agitated, suicidal thoughts, and difficulty concentrating.
Clinically, to be diagnosed, these need to be things that are well outside of your “normal” day-to-day self. So, this looks like a pretty significant change in behavior.
SAD also has some additional bonus symptoms for those that cycle in the wintertime (woohoo! bonus!) that include hypersomnia (being able to sleep for hooooouuurs more than what you normally would, withdrawal from social events (which in therapy is often described by the person experiencing it as “wanting to hibernate”), overeating, and craving carbs - which seems hilarious to write out, because holidays, am I right?! But on a serious note, this is something to watch out for in addition to the other symptoms of regular depression.
It is more commonly diagnosed in women, and a family history of SAD increases your risk (thanks mom!).
What To Do About SAD
Those that struggle with seasonal affective disorder may find that medication through the seasons they cycle in can be super helpful.
For those that are in places like Ohio, light therapy to bump up your vitamin D production can also be helpful. You can also take vitamin D supplements, although research shows that this may not actually do much to help.
For those that are in more sunshine-y states, making a point to take advantage of the sunshine is super important. Because it gets dark so early, this may mean changing your routine at work to take a walk mid-day on nice days - or paying super close attention during “partly cloudy” days to make sure that you get outside to enjoy that natural light while it’s available.
Just like regular depression, therapy is proven to help with SAD. Common treatment is CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) that will help with replacing negative thoughts. I’ve found that additionally doing behavioral activation exercises with clients (and myself) is also helpful for those that experience SAD. These exercises help to identify the things that are pleasurable and prioritize those things during the times when motivation is lackluster.
One thing that I’ve noticed from experiencing SAD myself is that since it happens in combination with the holiday season, it’s really important that I make sure that I stay on top of it. Otherwise, the things that I care about doing for the holidays can just get pushed aside because I’m feeling tired and depressed. And usually when I push aside things (or people) that I care about over the holiday season, it starts a big shame/guilt cycle for me, which takes way longer to pull out of than if I had just been proactive about it.
Need more support than what a blog post can give you? Do you struggle with the winter season, too? Reach out! You can schedule with me directly by using my online scheduler (linked right here!) or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brooke Williams, MA, LPC, is a licensed professional counselor serving South Carolina. You can read more about her here.