This weekend, as a nation – minus Arizona and Hawaii, of course – we will “fall back” as we regain the hour lost to us when we “sprung forward” in March. Yes, it’s Daylight Savings Time. Or the end of Daylight Savings Time. Frankly, I find the whole thing rather confusing and the chore of resetting all the clocks in my house to be rather tedious. Don’t get me started on the clock in my car – I have resigned myself to it only being correct for 7 months of the year. I’ll manage.
For some people, this joyous time of year marks an hour of extra sleep. For others, it marks the beginning of a rough adjustment for our internal clocks. For still others, this is a scary time. This time, for some, marks the beginning of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Many of us experience the “winter blues”. A feeling of reduced overall energy, mild irritability, and a yearning for that glowing orb in the sky that is conspicuously missing both when we’re heading into work and heading home. But Seasonal Affective Disorder is the Hulk-ed up version of the winter blues. And it’s a very serious condition.
There’s not one specific cause of SAD (apt acronym, no?) but experts believe it’s a combination of less time in the sun (which can trigger lower levels of Vitamin D), messed up circadian rhythms (our internal clock that tells us when to sleep and when to wake), and lower levels of the brain chemical serotonin. The difference between SAD and clinical depression is that SAD clearly comes and goes when the seasons change. For those of us in higher latitudes, our days get significantly shorter in the winter months. Add Daylight Savings Time to that equation and we’re simultaneously trying to wrestle our natural circadian rhythms into sync with the time on the clock. It’s taxing to our system.
Symptoms of SAD are similar to depression: decreased energy, mood instability, increased anxiety, sleep disturbance, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, weight gain, and an increased craving for carbohydrates. But, unlike depression, those feelings begin to lift once the days start to warm again. If you’ve noticed a pattern of feeling very down with the seasonal change, over two or more years, you may be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder. And, if so, the first place you should start is with your doctor. (Though I like to think I know it all and often will diagnose myself with any assortment of disorders and illnesses, please don’t mistake any of my ramblings for actual medical advice. It’s not.) When SAD begins to impact your daily functioning, it’s time to seek support.
There are many therapies available for SAD. Many people find light therapy to be very beneficial to their overall mood and energy level. Using light therapy is as simple as sitting in front of a specially designed “light box” for 30 minutes a day and is best utilized in the morning. Others find that by waking themselves by using a light that slowly increases in brightness rather than a simple alarm clock, it helps “reset” their internal clock and they wake feeling more ready for their day. For those that experience trouble falling asleep at the appropriate time, some people have found sleep comes easier by adding an over the counter supplement called Melatonin to their routine, typically an hour before they plan to go to bed. (Again, please refer to the disclaimer above.)
Getting outside during the day – especially on sunny days – is an all-natural and easy way to give our systems a boost as well. Go for a quick walk and take a moment to truly appreciate the feeling of the sun on your face. Exercise naturally boosts serotonin levels and getting your heart rate elevated outside provides the additional benefit of some naturally generated vitamin D. Counseling during this time can also help by providing an outlet for these feelings, as well as reconfirming that this is a seasonal disorder – one which will pass and should not your baseline measurement for experiencing happiness and joy in your life.
But if you’ve tried all these things and your bad mood is pervasive, it may be time to see your physician. Antidepressants, even used on a short term basis, can provide significant relief from depressive symptoms. Remember that tricky serotonin thing? Sometimes we need to reset that chemical imbalance and that can only be accomplished through medication. And that’s okay. If you were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, you wouldn’t expect your pancreas to make more insulin through sheer willpower alone. Nor should you think you can combat depression by willing your serotonin levels back to normal. It simply doesn’t work like that.
Oh, and this weekend, don’t forget to change the batteries in your smoke detectors. Because it’s a good idea. Plus, it’s super annoying to try to figure out which detector is ominously beeping when the batteries do go dead. Don’t be that person.