People are becoming more and more aware of SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, but what is it, what do you need to understand about friends who experience it, and what they might be going through.
1. SAD and hating winter are not the same thing
Almost everyone hates winter, the weather is cold and wet and the days are shorter. We have to wear more clothes, are often cold and we can’t do the things we love to do in the summer. This makes us all fed up and we can’t wait for spring to come around. It would be easy to think that this is the same as SAD and those who say they have it are making a fuss about nothing. Unfortunately for SAD sufferers things are much much worse.
For people experiencing SAD every day is packed with challenges. Symptoms range from brain fog, deep fatigue, depression and anxiety. None of us want to get out of bed when it’s cold but for a SAD sufferer it can be almost impossible to face another day struggling with a body that feels like lead and a brain that won’t work. Feelings of despair and worthlessness are common along with the racing thoughts filled with anxiety and guilt. Most SAD sufferers would love to just be cross about having to wear more clothes and deal with the bad weather.
2. It all starts with brain chemistry
Although changing their attitude to the winter can help SAD sufferers, the symptoms they experience often have their roots in physiology rather than psychology. This means it is not a simple case of “snapping out of it”.
The fatigue and brain fog caused by SAD are generally due to the change in light levels and day length and the effect that has on the brain. The natural sleep/wake cycle, known as the circadian rhythm, is affected the by level of light entering the eyes, as the sun sets our brain begins to produce hormones that tells our body it is time to sleep. On dark or short days SAD sufferers never stop producing these hormones so are always in a state of pre or post sleep. Imagine how you feel just as you are dropping off; this is how a SAD sufferer can feel all day. The stress caused by being asked to continue to function in this fast paced world whilst in this state of sleepiness can often lead to anxiety.
Another factor in the symptoms of SAD is the weakening of the strength of the sun. It has long been known that when strong sunlight hits bare skin our bodies produce Vitamin D; an important component in the process of producing serotonin. However, it is also being suggested that the effects of full spectrum light along with negative ions and ozone, all produced by sunlight, may have a powerful effect on our wellbeing. As the sunlight diminishes so does our exposure to all of the health giving aspects of the sun and this can have a crippling effect on SAD sufferers.
3. When SAD people say they are tired they are not being lazy and when their brains don’t work understand they are trying.
As I mentioned in the previous point, due to the continued production of sleep hormones SAD sufferers really do feel like they could sleep forever and everything takes greater effort.
These hormones can also mean that it is harder to remember things or understand complex ideas. Imagine how you feel just as your alarm goes off in the morning. Would you be up for running a marathon or doing a spot of algebra? Or would you like a coffee and a moment to wake up? This is how it can feel for a SAD sufferer all day. Understand that today is not a good day and help them with any tasks that must be completed.
4. On some days SAD people can seem quite normal or even manic.
On these days notice what the weather is like, is it sunny by any chance?
Being super sensitive to light levels means that on the days where the sun is shining SAD sufferers can seem like there is nothing wrong, they might even come across as slightly manic. The person themselves might feel like there has been a breath of fresh air blown through them and their symptoms evaporate.
Rather than thinking that they are making it up on the dark days, make the most of it and enjoy their company, they will need memories of a good day to help them cope when the sun disappears again.
5. SAD people may disappear from your life in the winter, they will be back.
When every day is a struggle with fatigue, depression and anxiety it can take all your strength to get up and go to work. The thought of going out in the evening is often a stretch too far as the craving for sleep and comfort become overwhelming. Combine this with increased anxiety making it hard to drive, go out at night or face large crowds and many SAD sufferers find it easier to limit their social interaction through the winter.
Please understand, they haven’t fallen out with you, they are just using all their energy to look after themselves and do the important things. Keep involving them and inviting them along and try not to take it personally if they decline more often. As soon as spring comes around they will love to spend some time catching up.
6. They do still love you, try to remember this for them until spring comes and they remember themselves.
As a woman with SAD I can tell you it sometimes feels just like PMT. I know I am being intolerant, I know I am being unreasonable but I simply can’t do anything about it. I remember telling my husband one autumn “I do love you, please remember for me when I forget”. With SAD your libido is non-existent, you are exhausted, irritable, and depressed, it is so easy to take it out on the ones you love. Although there is no excuse for being mean try to understand that we are doing our best and we do still love you, even if we don’t feel like it at the moment.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is real and it can be crippling, if you have a friend that seems to go downhill every autumn it is possible they have SAD. Send them this link and try and support them while they get through the winter.