Tag Archives: SAD

Please excuse me while I’m being human…

You know what? Having Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) really sucks sometimes! But I’m only human and sometimes I fall down.

I know, I know; that isn’t the usual positive message I give about managing SAD. But it is the truth. There are times when I really struggle with it and I feel sorry for myself. Times like this week. I get annoyed that not only do I have to spend half my year – every year – managing my symptoms just to try and lead a ‘normal life’ during autumn and winter, but I also have times in spring and summer when it catches me out.

Being only too human…

High Force WaterfallI’ve been struggling for the last three weeks. Here in the north east of England we’ve had almost solid rain on weekdays, with nice weekends. I’m really grateful we had sunshine on the weekends of course; I’ve made the most of it in our beautiful countryside and I’ve felt good on those days. There’s nothing like sitting on a high rock with your feet dangling over the edge of a huge waterfall to make you feel care-free! 😀

In summer, I don’t use artificial light therapy because there’s normally enough natural light for me to be feeling great! The thing I struggle with is that I don’t know how long a rainy spell will last, so it doesn’t always occur to me to use my light. Then the symptoms sneak up and bite me on the ass, which is what happened this week!

I’ve been feeling tired, frustrated, irritable and a bit paranoid into the bargain. I’ve been giving myself a hard time over just about everything. My work is challenging (in a good way – it’s why I took my job!) and there are naturally times when I don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere with my objectives, despite working hard. Change isn’t linear and there will always be times you feel like you’re going backwards! Usually I accept this, but with my symptoms getting the better of me, things built up.

It came to a head; I had my first panic attack when I got to my desk on Wednesday. It came out of the blue and was pretty mild compared to what I know some people experience, but nevertheless I hope I don’t have any more!

Being vulnerable…

I’ve been more open at work about how my SAD is affecting me than I have ever been. I worry about seeming unprofessional, and sometimes maybe I am. But I’m also human and I am so grateful for how my colleagues have responded this week.

My boss told me it’s okay to take the day off sick if I need to recharge when I told him I needed to use my day differently – to take stock, make a new plan, look after myself and find some energy. I really appreciated this; I knew I didn’t need to be ‘off’ – but just to let myself get things in focus and plan a way forward.

Tyneside and Northumberland Mind logoOur company partners with Tyneside and Northumberland Mind, who piloted their Sally Allen Fund employer mental health awareness presentation with us. It is allowing different conversations to take place. It gave me the confidence to email our MD and let him know what was going on and what steps I was going to take to make myself feel better. He was as concerned and supportive as I expected him to be.

A colleague took me for a cuppa while we discussed if there were any adaptations we could make in the office. Another was there for me when I was having the panic attack. She took me outside, gave me a hug and helped me recover. Still others were kind and accepting that I was having a tough week.

Standing still a moment…

As ever, when I’ve taken some time to reflect on what’s going on, it isn’t just one thing. It’s back to the same old story; SAD is never in isolation.

Work challenges. Life changes (lovely ones, but still change!). Everyday irritations like starting my day mopping up because my conservatory bedroom leaks! Not looking after myself properly. You know – same old, same old! 😉

Everything interconnects. My hormones and brain chemicals will be imbalanced if I’m feeling stressed, not eating and sleeping well, not taking time out for myself and exercising. This impacts everything else, as well as the SAD.

Of course, it’s a double-edged sword because SAD causes me to feel tired and struggle with energy and motivation, so I’m less likely to look after myself well when I’m symptomatic. I end up turning to quick ‘fixes’ like carbs, sugar and caffeine, which of course don’t fix anything!

I was annoyed with myself. I felt I was being a crap friend, crap employee, crap girlfriend. I was telling myself off because I have no real reason to feel so bad; things are actually really good in my life right now! I screwed up on an important presentation because I wasn’t on good form, and that’s how I finished the working week. Come Friday night I was so exhausted and fed up.

Dusting myself off…

My friends, family and boyfriend (yep – I’m newly in a relationship!) are absolutely wonderful and I make no apologies for the amount of times I say that! 🙂 They are always there cheer-leading or soothing. They get and support me no matter what – and there’s nothing more loving than that.

As I climbed into bed on Friday, I told myself, “You know what, Neens? You’re only human. Everyone falls sometimes. What’s done is done. So pick yourself up and dust yourself off, now.”

Balcony gardening and readingSo, I’ve made sure I’ve eaten properly, exercised and slept well. I also thought about what helps me feel better in spirit. I bought myself flowers on my way home from work on Friday. I spent yesterday planting flowers on my balcony, cooking, reading, listening to music, dancing, catching up on messages from friends and family. And I spent lots of time in the sunshine, which made a reappearance!

I’m feeling lots more ‘myself’ today as a result. I am really not perfect – nobody is – and I think I need to learn to be more accepting of that. I have a real stubborn perfectionist streak; at times I hold myself to impossible standards I would never expect of others. I’ve done a lot of work over the last couple of years on the inner critic and developing self-compassion. Sometimes though, the old patterns of thinking take over and I find I’m beating myself up as of old. But life’s about putting one foot in front of the other and doing your best. That’s all I can be and do. I’m only human, after all.

Stigma and sitting with fear

Last month, I published and shared a post on my social media channels about using antidepressants to manage SAD and touched on the stigma I felt about them. It really seemed to resonate. So much so, that it had over 900 views. I received around 100 comments and private messages from friends, family, colleagues and even people I didn’t know. This response was completely unexpected – so humbling and overwhelming.

I felt such a wall of love and acceptance around me and over a month later I’m still feeling bowled over by it. Thank you so much if you’re reading this and you were one of the people who reached out to me. I’m not able to do justice to describing how much it meant to me.

So, what did we learn about stigma from this experience?

The first thing that became clear to me and hopefully to everyone else, is that the world doesn’t come crashing down around you if you share your experience of depression, anxiety, SAD, burnout, adrenal fatigue, mental/nervous breakdown… or any other common type of mental ill health.

I hope that if you saw the Facebook post you took strength and inspiration from the wonderful people who commented. You should be able to click on the comments icon after the post to read them:

I had a huge ‘vulnerability hangover’ after sharing this post and I wanted to delete it. How glad am I that I sat with that uncertainty and fear now though?! 🙂 If I hadn’t, we wouldn’t have seen the level of support that people can show when we allow ourselves to be known.

Is stigma a misunderstood term?

Interestingly, some of the conversations highlighted people’s different understandings of what stigma is. It made me wonder whether we have different interpretations of how much of a problem stigma is because of these discrepancies.

In its dictionary definition, it sounds very severe: “A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” (Oxford Dictionary)

For me, it isn’t just about an obvious ‘mark’ that would indicate something about a person, that you could perceive from the outside. And it might not always feel like full-blown ‘disgrace’; it can also be disapproval or contempt. I believe that is still stigma.

Anything that incites shame around a condition, circumstance, character or behaviour, I would call stigmatising.

I’m really interested in hearing in the comments what you consider stigma to mean, if you feel able to share?

Don’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes…

This commonly-quoted Indian-American proverb of unknown origin is as wise and relevant today as it has ever been. When we look at what is happening in the world, we see so much suffering that stems from judging others.

Most mental health stigma seems to come from lack of knowledge. It’s okay for us not to know what we don’t know! But the distinction is that it’s not okay to negatively judge and criticise what we don’t know – that’s what makes it stigma.

Often, we can hold opinions about something that are not our own. We can soak up the general feeling and opinions about a topic like a sponge. Children in particular are primed to learn from others in this way. We can teach them well or poorly.

If you hear enough people criticising antidepressant users, for example, you can shame someone for taking them, without knowing anything about them.

The majority of people we know would consider themselves to be non-judgemental, I’m sure. If they say something out of lack of understanding we forgive them, when they respond in an open way as we have a conversation with them about the topic.

The need for empathy

Sadly, as is so often the case in life, our memories are coloured disproportionately by the minority. Those individuals and experiences that leave you feeling raw and vulnerable. Our primitive brain makes us protect ourselves from further harm by magnifying and making us feel fear.

I have an example to share with you from my own personal experience from a few years back. Talking about my experience of SAD one day to my team, my colleague interrupted me and said, “don’t be ridiculous; you can’t get depression because of the weather!” At first, I thought maybe what sounded like contempt was meant to be a joke. Her first language wasn’t English, so I understood that sometimes this can happen.

However, as the conversation progressed it quickly became obvious that the contempt and attempt to shame me was deliberate. She couldn’t empathise and refused to listen to my explanation, believing she was right and she knew more about depression than I did. The real kicker was that some time later she started to complain that she felt that the weather was making her tired and getting her down, while asking for my advice about a dawn simulator. Had she been able to empathise earlier she might have been able to recognise and head off her symptoms before they started to affect her.

Little Light Room - less stigma more love

Opening up…

The memory of this experience and others like it is what bubbled up in me as I was sharing my post last month. The irrational thoughts of ‘what if people think I’m weak or just being self-indulgent?’ and ‘will this damage my professional profile – what will my colleagues and clients think of me?’ were very loud and insistent!

So why did I not only publish the post, but share it publicly on my social media channels? Well, I feel passionately about the topic of improving mental health and our need to overcome stigma as a major barrier to this. But I felt like a fraud because I was still hiding the extent of my experience myself. I genuinely want to help people understand and feel understood, but fear was holding me back.

The reality is that most people are able to empathise, if we are brave enough to face down our fear of being judged and share. Only by more people being more open will we be able to overcome stigma. This isn’t easy for any of us and we must do it only when it’s right for us.

The reward has been that I felt more love and acceptance than I could ever have imagined when I shared. I hope one day we’ll talk as openly about our mental health as we do about having a common cold.

How can I manage SAD symptoms? Part Four – lifestyle

Lifestyle. It’s a big, all-encompassing word, isn’t it? This final part of the series looks at ways you can jolly yourself along when you’re living with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or Winter Blues. These are just some of the lifestyle things I do that work for me. If you’ve just arrived on this site and want to find out more about the condition itself, a good primer is the ‘SAD basics – where to start‘ post. 🙂

To recap on the series, the first part covers how to manage SAD and Winter Blues with specialist SAD lights (light therapy). The second part covers dawn simulators and investing in light therapy. The third part looks at medication and talking therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). 

Daily lifestyle routines are really important!

Okay, I’m putting my hand up – I’m a routine person! Anyone with me? 🙂 From past experience, some of the best advice I can offer you is to try to establish strong daily lifestyle routines, especially in autumn and winter. You’ll find it so much easier to be consistent with your light therapy (and therefore feel better) if you can link it to something else that’s already embedded in your daily routine. 

I use my big light at home in the morning while I’m practising something called the Miracle Morning. This encompasses the physiotherapy I have to do each day and links everything together. Linking routines together helps make them a habit. I’ll do a separate post on the Miracle Morning later, but there’s a link there if you’re interested in looking it up now.

Get as much natural light as you can

If you can find yourself a routine to get some natural light each day too, all the better. Obviously it has to work around your current commitments, but getting out during daylight hours every day, no matter what the weather, is really going to help you.

Lifestyle is important in SAD: person walking in snow with dog in natural lightI know, I know – you probably don’t want to go out when it’s grey and raining! I’m the same, especially if I’ve no reason to go out. And sometimes, I don’t. This is a recent change for me; I used to force myself to go out. I’d beat myself up for being lazy for not wanting to. I have a conservatory bedroom now so some weekend days, if I’m content at home, I’ll operate from there and drink in the light.

However, when I didn’t have this natural light available at home, I would ask colleagues or a boyfriend to encourage me to get out and about. I find people are glad they can do something practical to help because you can feel helpless when someone’s going through a condition you don’t have experience of yourself.

When you’re at work, it’s tempting to stay at your desk for lunch on grey days isn’t it? If you can give yourself errands to run on your lunch break, that can help you get out. It also reduces your ‘to-do’ list in small increments without it being too overwhelming.

Diet

  • Don’t fight your urge to eat warming foods – they don’t have to be bad for you! I firmly believe the maxim ‘A little of what you fancy does you good’.
  • Eat little and often to avoid blood sugar crashes that will leave you feeling irritable and tired.
  • Try not to drink too much, too often – alcohol is a depressant, affects your sleep and leaves you tired the next day. These are often the very symptoms you’re trying to combat!

Exercise

  • Arrange to exercise with a friend – you’re less likely to skip it.
  • Keep your exercise goals realistic and be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t manage to do a session – be pleased about what you do manage to do.
  • Commit small when you’re struggling. Give yourself permission to only do 20 minutes at the gym or walk for just ten minutes.

Indulge yourself!

One of my favourite indulgences is curling up on the sofa under a blanket with a good book and hot chocolate! 

Sometimes, it’s the little things in life that get you through the day. A hot bath after a hard day. Listening to your favourite piece of music. Curling up with a book… be kind to yourself. You deserve it! 🙂 What are your favourite indulgences?

Lifestyle is the daily choices you make: treat yourself nicely and cosy up in a hat and scarf to feel goodYou can also kit yourself out with thick woolly gloves, lovely soft scarves, cosy hats and toasty socks. So, here I am with my waterproof jacket on too, feeling fine about going out in the wind and rain because I’m well wrapped up! Maybe you can up your cosiness and see how it changes how you feel?

Another thing to try is to do things that remind you of summer. Keep pampering yourself – use up that lovely sun oil spray, paint your nails a bright colour, wear skirts with woolly tights, bright floral tops with a cardi on top. Gentlemen – if you’re feeling a bit left out here, sorry! Maybe you can keep wearing lighter colours, using a lighter aftershave. Listen to music that reminds you of summer days. If you’re stuck for inspiration try this Spotify playlist of weather-inspired songs 🙂 What would you add?

Finally, I plan to cover diet and exercise in greater depth in other posts, so look out for these if you’re interested. 

So then… I love to hear your thoughts… What are your lifestyle tips for managing SAD? How do you persuade yourself to leave the house on a grey day? What support do you enlist from your family and friends?

Images:
Walk in the snow: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/walk-in-the-snow-1386838

How can I manage SAD symptoms? Part Three – medication and talking therapies

This is part three of ‘How can I manage SAD symptoms?’, where we take a look at medication and talking therapies.

Part one covered bright light therapy, which is delivered via a SAD light and is highly recommended for treating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Winter Blues. Part two covered dawn simulators and investing in light therapy. In the fourth part I’ll cover some lifestyle factors and share a couple of ideas with you about things you can try to jolly yourself along!

I consider myself to be very fortunate that I’m one of the 85% of people for whom light therapy is effective. But that’s not to say that I don’t use other things to help me manage my symptoms. Or that there’s no hope for you, if you find that light therapy doesn’t help you.

This is the part where I’m going to ask you to bear with me! I’m not a doctor or a therapist. So I’ll point you in the direction of good quality medical information. Please do consult your doctor or a qualified professional about any symptoms you experience.

Medication

I’m aware that some people are very uncomfortable with the idea of taking antidepressant medications. Sadly the stigma that people feel about mental health prevents many from seeking the help they need. I count myself here; I had to really challenge myself to accept taking medication – read the real story.

If you have been to see your doctor about symptoms affecting your mental health, then I’d like to say a huge well done to you! It takes a lot of courage to take this first step.

Small, round, white pills coming out of a bottleWhile the ‘first line’ recommendation for SAD and Winter Blues treatment is bright light therapy, your doctor may want you to try an antidepressant medication in addition to, or instead of light therapy. 

Mind’s page on antidepressants is very thorough and accessible and of course, your doctor can also answer any questions you might have too. 

For additional personal perspectives on managing SAD with antidepressants, I would recommend chatting with people on the Lumie Forum. I’ve found that people are very open and honest about their experiences. They’re generally happy to answer questions and share tips too. There is also the facility on the site to send and receive private messages. You can also become a member of the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SADA), who offer peer support services by telephone and email.

Some people find that a herbal remedy called St John’s Wort can help with feelings of mild depression and anxiety. Other products in a similar category are 5-HTP, which is a pre-cursor to serotonin production.

Products like ‘Kalms’, ‘Stress-less’ and ‘Bach Rescue Remedy’ aim to help with feelings of stress. These are available in health stores and chemists, and you might find they help. However, a note of caution: herbal remedies can interact with other prescribed and non-prescribed medications, including the contraceptive pill. They won’t be suitable for people with certain conditions, so always check with your doctor.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and other talking therapies

CBT is a commonly used treatment for depressive conditions (including SAD). It has a lot of support in the medical community because it has strong scientific evidence to demonstrate its effectiveness. Some studies have found it to be as effective in treating depression as antidepressants.

Again, I’m going to refer you to a Mind page for more detail, but for now, this is how they define it:

CBT is a form of talking therapy that combines cognitive therapy and behaviour therapy. It focuses on how you think about the things going on in your life – your thoughts, images, beliefs and attitudes (your cognitive processes) – and how this impacts on the way you behave and deal with emotional problems. It then looks at how you can change any negative patterns of thinking or behaviour that may be causing you difficulties. In turn, this can change the way you feel.

Your doctor may offer you CBT through the NHS. This may be delivered face to face, over the telephone or it may be an online course. You can also find private therapists on the It’s Good to Talk website, which is hosted by the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP).

Most services or therapists would have a chat with you before starting the therapy to ensure that CBT is the right approach for you. From this, they may recommend CBT or perhaps a blended CBT and person-centred counselling approach.

There are also some really good self-help resources available which you could use while you’re working with a CBT therapist, or you might want to just try giving it a go yourself. I’ve read and can recommend Overcoming Depression: A Self-help Guide to Using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques by Paul Gilbert and The Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns, M.D.

Two people, one with a bike, walking in a park in the sunshine - talking therapiesRemember that as with any therapy, only you can do the work, and you’ll get out what you put in. Sometimes CBT itself is enough to help you. Sometimes you might need to combine it with medication and/or light therapy.

Of course, sometimes it can also help just to talk to other people who live with this condition and understand where you’re coming from. I hope that you might take some comfort from looking around this site, perhaps adding your thoughts and questions. The Lumie Forum is great too. And don’t discount talking to your family, friends and colleagues – they could be a great source of support if you are willing to share with them how you’re feeling and why.

For some less formal coping strategies, head on over to part four – I hope you’re finding this series helpful.

Image credits:
Medication: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/softgel-capsule-1325982
Walking friends: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/friendship-1534626

How can I manage SAD symptoms? Part Two – dawn simulators

This is part two of ‘How can I manage SAD symptoms’, looking at another type of light therapy – dawn simulators. I’ve also discussed making the decision to invest in light therapy here.

Part one covered the main kind of light therapy that is recommended for treating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Winter Blues – bright light therapy, which is delivered by a SAD light. In part three, I’ll cover medication and talking therapies. Then in part four, we’ll take a look at some lifestyle strategies that I hope you’ll find helpful.

Dawn Simulators

This is Lumie’s video about dawn simulators (also known as wake up lights):

There are other manufacturers of dawn simulators, but I have only had Lumie models. I use the basic model, the Bodyclock STARTER 30. However, they have a full range that give you more functionality if you want it. I use my dawn simulator every day, even in summer. I use black-out curtains to help keep a good sleep/wake cycle.

As you can see, a dawn simulator prepares your body for waking up by gradually raising the light level in your room. The artificial sunrise provides a cue for your body to reduce production of the sleep hormone melatonin and to start gradually increasing the production of cortisol, which gives you some ‘get-up-and-go’. You might find my earlier post, ‘Why do we suffer from SAD?’ interesting too.

Dawn simulators don’t reach the same light intensity as a SAD light. Although they’re great for helping you to wake up in a more natural way, they won’t treat all of your SAD symptoms.

Do dawn simulators work?

Mary Poppins dancing and singing - maybe she used dawn simulatorsI’m not going to tell you that I leap out of bed in the depths of winter à la Mary Poppins just from using my dawn simulator alone. I’ll tell you some other things I do in the fourth part of this series which helps me. What I will say is that it is a really lovely way to wake up, feeling like you’re ready to be awake. It also means your room is light and you’re less likely to have an accident from stumbling around the room in the dark! I recommend dawn simulators to absolutely everyone, regardless of whether they suffer from SAD or not.

I honestly couldn’t go back to a traditional alarm clock now. Being shocked out of sleep in the pitch black by a wailing alarm – no thanks! In my mind, it makes no sense to wake up this way because your stress response activates. Think about it – a loud noise that rips you out of sleep… Of course your body’s going to get ready to fight or flee! It’s just not a great way to start your day, is it?

My basic model has a fixed duration sunrise, sunset and alarm features. For the sunrise, you simply set your alarm for the time you want to get up. So if you set the alarm for 6.30am, it will come on very dimly at 6.00am. It then gradually brightens over 30 minutes. Other models have adjustable time periods.

There’s a back-up beeper for peace of mind, but I usually wake a moment before it goes off. When it does, it isn’t a shock because my body’s already awake – if that makes sense? More expensive models have functionality to select the sound you wake up to.

The sunset function of the dawn simulator is nice too, allowing me to wind down and the room to gradually darken as I drop off to sleep. Zzzzzz 🙂

Investing in light therapy

Are dawn simulators and SAD lights worth the investmentI appreciate that paying around £100+ for a SAD light and another £60+ for a dawn simulator seems like a lot. Personally, I would pay many times this, for the huge difference that light therapy has made to my quality of life! Being curious what this worked out at per day, I’ve done some very rough calculations:

I recently replaced the original light box I bought when I was first diagnosed, treating myself to a more powerful Lumie Brazil. So, at £295.65 in total, my two big lights and my small LED light I use at work, have cost me about £0.12 per day. This is based on using them daily for six months over 13 years. That will continue to drop as I only bought the Brazil last year.

I also replaced my original dawn simulator a few years ago. I spent £120 over 12 years. So used every day, I have paid about £0.03 per day for my lovely wake-up lights! 😀

Will light therapy work for me?

One of the main concerns when deciding whether to buy a SAD light or dawn simulator is whether they’ll work for you. If you don’t want to buy outright, you can hire SAD lights and dawn simulators, from e.g. the SAD Shop. Or, you could buy a product direct from a manufacturer, who may give you a money-back guarantee. Lumie give you 30 days and Philips give you 28 days’ free home trial. Most people will notice their symptoms improve in around a week or two. This would give you plenty of time to see if the products are helpful for you.

Giving people an experience of light therapy was behind my reason for launching the Little Light Room events. I wanted people to be able to experience it for themselves and ask me any questions.

Given that light therapy is the first line of recommended treatment for SAD and Winter Blues, I really would encourage you to invest in at least a SAD light if you can. If light therapy works for you, you’ll be amazed by the difference it makes to your quality of life.

And if you find light therapy doesn’t work for you? Well then, firstly you have my sympathies. There are other treatments you can try, such as medication and talking therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – look out for more on these in part three.

What’s your experience with light therapy? Have you tried a dawn simulator? Have you any tips and tricks of your own to share?

Neens 🙂

Image credits:
Mary Poppins: http://www.thefancarpet.com/uploaded_assets/images/gallery/919/Mary_Poppins_10976_Medium.jpg
Coins in hand: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/coins-in-hand-1245246 

Christmas Calm: Navigating the Festive Season with SAD and Winter Blues

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…! If that is making you groan and want to go back to bed, you’re not alone! I’ve got some tips for you to help you achieve Christmas Calm and have you floating about in a zen-like state… Well – maybe not that actually, but not the frazzled, overwhelmed state that you might recognise, at least! 😉

Grab yourself a cuppa or a glass of something nice while you read this one, because, y’know… why not?

Drop the guilt

If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s beating ourselves up for all the things we haven’t done. Instead of seeing all of the things we have achieved, we see what’s missing. This is where compassion comes in. Trust that you’re doing your best and so is everyone else. You wouldn’t point your finger at a friend and tell him or her that they’re a failure, would you? Don’t do it to yourself, either.

There is a lot of pressure on to have ‘the perfect Christmas’. We think it’s driven by existing expectations, the plans of others and us comparing ourselves unfavourably, and of course, marketing. However, what all these things have in common is that they are actually your own thoughts about them that make you feel guilty; you think that you’re not measuring up. What if you instead chose to be inspired and excited by the things you see or hear about instead of thinking you can’t measure up?

So, pay attention to that critical inner voice and what it’s saying. Challenge it. Think of why what it’s saying isn’t true. Do you really always leave everything to the last minute? When have you planned ahead successfully? If you can find even one instance when what your critical inner voice is saying isn’t true, then you can ignore whatever it has to say.

This technique is founded in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is based on the notion that your thoughts create your feelings and lead to your behaviours. You can read more about it on the NHS website.

I know that you might be thinking ‘well it’s okay for you to say that, but I just feel how I feel’. I used to think the same when people said these things to me too, but a mixture of CBT and Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) has helped me a lot. If you find yourself plagued by the critical inner voice a lot, then you can often get therapies on the NHS, so check within your area.

Make a plan – and a budget

Speaking of planning ahead successfully… Yes, some people have their Christmas shopping all wrapped up by September. Bravo them! But they’ve still had to do the same decision-making, shopping, wrapping, etc. that you’re going to do.

Christmas calm: standing still in a busy marketIt doesn’t matter when you do it. It can be less harried to do it earlier, but there are ways to reduce your exposure to the hussle and bustle. Shopping later in the evening or early in the day, at out of town shops, or online can all help.

So, in true Christmas fashion, if Santa makes a list, then so can you! Who’s been naughty or nice? And what gift would you like to give them?

You can indicate a rough budget too, so you don’t stress yourself by overspending. It’s so easy to do, isn’t it?

Now think about all the other things you need to do. Order the turkey. Buy cards and wrapping. Put decorations up. Whatever you need to do, get it all down in a list. You can also assign it a priority to help you with the next tip!

If you like, you can use my Christmas Calm planner template to either plan or take stock where you’ve got to; I hope it helps! To make your own copy of this, got to file > make a copy and it should save in your own Google Drive. Otherwise if you’re not a Google account holder, you can just copy the headings and paste them into whatever spreadsheet software you use.

Downsize your Christmas

Okay, so have a look again at your list. How is it making you feel? Excited? Overwhelmed? Stressed?

What things can you cross off that aren’t really necessary for you to do? What things on that list won’t make a real difference to your or your loved ones’ enjoyment of Christmas? Maybe you don’t really need to buy charger plates and more table decorations? Maybe there’s no need to buy a new TV right now? Can you simplify dinner a bit? Are all the social engagements you were planning going to make you happy?

It’s so easy to get caught up in the feeling that you need to make sure that Christmas is ‘perfect’ – and to shoulder all that burden yourself.

Part of downsizing for you might be to share the burden around a bit more. Can family members or friends take on some of the tasks on your list? Is there any they might actually enjoy?

Remember that the best thing you can give your family and friends this Christmas is your time and energy. If you’re completely spent by the time the festive season comes round, then you’re not going to be able to do that. And you’ll probably beat yourself up for that too…

So think about what’s really necessary and do those things first. The rest is nice-to-haves, if you have time and energy to complete them. Or you might snuggle up on the sofa with a Christmas film with your family instead! 🙂

Make it a pleasure

Isn’t it funny how we run around, head-down, on a mission to prepare for Christmas? We’re so busy working towards making the ‘big event’ enjoyable that we forget to enjoy the preparations.

Christmas calm: taking time out with a coffeeI know you’re busy and might feel you don’t have time to go get a coffee mid-shop. You will feel so much better if you do though; give yourself breaks and your shopping time will be more productive.

Slow down and enjoy the lights. Take a taxi if you are overloaded with your Christmas booty. Allow yourself to wander around and take in the scents and sounds of a market.

There’s a lot of talk about mindfulness and if you have ever tried to practice it, you have probably seen its benefits. Christmas Calm will be more of a possibility if you stay ‘in the moment’. Do your best to focus on enjoying what you’re doing right now, rather than allowing your mind to run amok and make you anxious with all the things you have to do.

Christmas Calm: all in the mind?

I don’t know what your Christmas to-do list looks like. You might be reading this post thinking ‘that’s all right for you to say, but I have sooo much to do!’ I don’t blame you; I would probably think the same.

But consider this: you have at least some of it to do anyway unless you decide you’re cancelling Christmas! So you can either enjoy the experience or find it a hassle and a pain. You can change your experience of it by choosing how you view it. Try it out and let me know how you get on?

Wishing you an enjoyable festive run-up! Remember when we get to Christmas the days are getting longer and lighter again too! 🙂

– Neens –

Image credits:

Coffee: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/coffee-1559191
Still lady: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/stillness-in-time-1251186

Autumn anxiety symptoms with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Orange autumn leaf close up in Leazes Park, Newcastle upon Tyne, UKI find autumn a strange time. There’s so many things I love about it. The colours. The nip in the air on my walk to work that heralds the turn of the season. The cosiness of wrapping my hands around a hot chocolate while snuggling under a blanket. Allowing myself to hibernate a little as the dark nights draw in.

I find October in particular a challenge too, though. This year we’ve had an ‘Indian Summer’ again in the UK, which has been fantastic given how long it took summer to arrive this year! As you might have felt, autumn seemed to arrive in a fanfare. All of a sudden it seemed so much darker. There is a reason for this; you’re not just imagining it!

The autumn equinox this year was on 22 September. This is when we have the fastest sunsets. I think when we’re enjoying the sunny days that September often provides we don’t notice it as much. But a series of dull, grey days come October and it suddenly becomes very apparent! And of course, the clocks went back at the end of October, which is when a lot of people with SAD or Winter Blues start to struggle.

For the last three years I’ve had some weird kind of symptoms that pop up (now reliably), each October. I get heart palpitations. Sometimes my heart races as if I’ve just sprinted. Other times it thuds hard and dully as if it’s working overtime just to allow me to sit there peacefully. My doctor made the sensible conclusion that it was anxiety last year. I’ve never suffered with anxiety before, but I am close to several people who have and do.

However, I’m not convinced that’s what’s going on. For me it’s been a physical symptom only; it’s usually at odds with what I’m actually doing or feeling. The only anxiety I feel is ‘why am I getting these odd symptoms’! I notice it most when I’m sitting reading, my mind engaged in a pleasant story, or often as soon as I wake up. I am not in any way stressed or putting any physical exertion on my body at the time. Last year, I was job-hunting, so it was understandable I might have been stressed when I went to a job interview. But that’s the strange thing – it didn’t seem to happen or worsen then!

This year I thought I’d got away with it and put it down to a couple of odd years. But no, I hadn’t – it started up again a few weeks ago! This year, although it’s maddeningly distracting, I’m doing my best not to allow it to bother me. I figure it must be some strange SAD symptom that’s sprouted in me; my brain chemicals adapting to the rapid change in light levels.

I’m working on being more compassionate to myself and not getting annoyed with my symptoms – rather, just accepting them for what they are and getting on the best I can regardless. I’m sure I’ve mentioned Paul Gilbert’s work on compassion before, but it’s worth sharing again because I feel it’s been something that’s made a big difference to my day to day life.

I thought I’d share this with you so that if it’s a symptom you experience you can hopefully take some comfort in not being alone with it. I’d be interested in knowing if anyone else experiences this? The SADA committee of which I’m part doesn’t, though they too find October a struggle.

Now that we’re past bonfire night and into the Christmas build-up, remember to take care of yourself and allow yourself plenty of time to rest.

– Neens –

Why do we suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Hello there! I hope you’re well and getting into the swing of your light routine? Finally, here is instalment number two of my ‘who, why, what, where, when and how’ of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Winter Blues. It’s another long one, but I hope you’ll find it interesting! 😀

In this post I’ll be covering a couple of the accepted theories of why people get SAD and Winter Blues / Winter Depression. This is my own understanding, based on what I’ve read over the years and a little background reading I’ve done for this post. It’s taken me quite a while to write, as I keep changing my mind what to put in! I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much info, but wanted to give you enough too. As always, do let me know what you think?

Do we actually know what causes SAD and Winter Blues?

In short, no. The first thing to say is that nobody seems to really know what causes SAD and Winter Blues! There’s a lot of theories, but it’s likely that there’s a complex interplay of factors that determine whether an individual develops SAD or not.

The most commonly held theory is that a lack of exposure to daylight in the late autumn to early spring months affects the brain’s production of the hormone melatonin and the neurotransmitter serotonin.

The body has an internal body clock, known as the circadian rhythm. It regulates sleep/wake cycles, appetite, digestion, mood and many other functions. This explains why SAD affects us in so many different ways.

What we have to remember is that we are animals and in evolutionary terms our bodies haven’t caught up with the lifestyles we’ve adopted as humans. Before we learned to artificially light our homes, people went to bed when it became dark and woke when the sun rose. They also spent a lot more time outdoors and had more physical jobs.

 

SAD and melatonin

The brain responds to decreased light by increasing production of the hormone melatonin, which signals to the body that it’s time to sleep. In the morning, when light reaches the eyes, melatonin levels begin to decrease and the hormone cortisol is released. This gives us the get-up-and-go that we need to start the day.

Red traditional alarm clock - these can be difficult for SAD sufferersIn the depths of winter, when many of us need to get up while it’s still dark, the body hasn’t received the correct signals to wake up. This is why it can be a real wrench to get up and you may feel shocked out of sleep by a traditional alarm clock – your body simply isn’t ready to be awake! When you think about it, this way of waking is likely to activate your fight or flight response. You wake up stressed before you’ve even started your day! A dawn simulator can help with this, waking you up in a more natural way.

But the problem isn’t only to do with waking. On very dull days, your levels of melatonin can stay high throughout the day, leading to those feelings of lethargy and sleepiness that you might recognise all-too-well. Before I was diagnosed with SAD, I would return from college and want to go straight to bed – I couldn’t keep my eyes open!

SAD and serotonin

The neurotransmitter, serotonin, is also thought to have a key role to play in SAD, as it appears to in other types of depression. Researchers have found that levels of serotonin can vary from day-to-day and across the year, with levels markedly lower in winter. People with lower levels of serotonin appear to be more likely to experience symptoms of all kinds of depression.

Reading about how to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs (Dr. Simon N. Young, 2007), this theory makes sense to me. If you’re anything like me, in winter you’ll be less likely to go outside at lunchtime, or whenever. Often eating at my desk means I move my bones less, get less natural light and I’m probably eating stodge, too. Carb cravings are a common symptom. I mean – who really fancies a salad in the middle of winter? Certainly not me! Haha – yes, yes, I’m aware that I don’t always follow my own advice! 😀

So, if light, exercise and a healthy diet are major natural ways of increasing serotonin production, then it would seem to follow that not doing/having these things may cause you to feel rubbish. At least, that’s how I understand it! 

Some further reading

As always, if you haven’t already, I’d recommend you have a look at the following excellent articles about SAD. They explain a bit more of the why in more medical terms than I have done:
NHS
Mind

If you’re interested in doing a bit more digging around into theory, here’s a few other theories that caught my eye:

People who suffer from SAD have an ‘unhelpful’ way of controlling serotonin –
Seasonal difference in brain serotonin transporter binding predicts symptom severity in patients with Seasonal Affective Disorder – Mahon et al (2014)

People who suffer from SAD may have retinal sensitivity anomalies –
Evidence of a Biological Effect of Light Therapy on the Retina of Patients with Seasonal Affective Disorder – Marie-Pier Lavoie,Raymond W. Lam,Guylain Bouchard,Alexandre Sasseville,Marie-Claude Charron,Anne-Marie Gagné,Philippe Tremblay,Marie-Josée Filteau,Marc Hébert (2009), Biological Psychiatry, Elsevier

People who suffer from SAD have lower levels of cortisol production in winter –
Seasonal differences in the diurnal pattern of cortisol secretion in healthy participants and those with self-assessed seasonal affective disorder – Thorn, Lisa and Evans, Philip D. and Cannon, Anne and Hucklebridge, Frank and Clow, Angela (2011), Psychoneuroendocrinology

An ongoing debate…

There’s a lot of debate still ongoing, though, as many of the theories don’t give absolute or satisfactory answers. So for example, suppressing melatonin doesn’t ‘cure’ SAD. Anti-depressants don’t work for everybody. Light therapy works for around 85% of people. It really does seem that individual differences can play a big part. So you may be more at risk of developing SAD if you or your family have a history of depression, or if you’ve been under chronic or sudden stress. If you suffer from depression that isn’t seasonal, it can feel worse in the winter.

Having said that, there does seem to be strong evidence to support the theories surrounding melatonin and serotonin having a key role to play. Correspondingly, there’s also strong evidence to support light therapy. If you want to do some more reading still, have a look at Lumie’s page of research abstracts. SADA members also receive monthly e-bulletins and longer newsletters three times per year which contain scientific news on SAD and Winter Blues.

I hope that this will have been a helpful post for you. Do you think there’s anything I need to add? What other theories have you read?

Take care,

– Neens –

Image credit
Alarm clock: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/alarm-clock-1621256

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Winter Blues?

Well, I promised you in ‘SAD basics – where to start…‘ some longer, more detailed posts on the what, who, where, why, when and how of SAD and Winter Blues… and here’s the first of these posts. I hope you’ll find it helpful – do let me know, I’d love to hear your thoughts! 

Some analogies to help you understand SAD

I already told you my Tigger and Eeyore analogy, but I have a couple more for you that I use when trying to explain to friends and colleagues what SAD is. Before I go into them, I’d like you to know that these are just my ways of thinking about SAD and my experience. I’d also encourage you to look at the SAD Association (SADA) page, or NHS page for a more medical explanation, if you haven’t already – I’m not trying to replace or replicate their information.

I find it helpful to think of SAD and Winter Blues as a scale, or continuum, and everyone has their place on it. On one side, you have people who experience no change to how they feel in winter compared with how they feel in summer. Then further along are those who feel a bit down and notice a change in their moods when winter comes round (Winter Blues). On the furthest point of the scale are people who suffer from SAD and will be significantly affected by the lack of daylight in the autumn and winter months. Don’t laugh at my amateur attempt with Paint, but this is what I mean!:

SAD scale with non-sufferer on one side, further along is Winter Blues and at the far end is SAD

SAD is a type of depression, but it is different to other types of depression in that it has a definite seasonal pattern. Symptoms will appear in the autumn months and usually last until spring. But sometimes, if our lovely British climate gives us a long spell of rainy weather in summer, people can experience SAD symptoms in the summer months. Left un-managed, SAD can become debilitating to the same extent as any other type of depression.

How does SAD and Winter Blues make you feel?

My favourite way to describe this is that ‘I would quite like to hibernate, thank you very much!’ Like this little guy:

baby hedgehog

Like a hedgehog, before I learned to successfully manage my SAD symptoms, I really, really wanted to hibernate for the winter. I would’ve been quite happy to just sleep and for the world to leave me alone!

Like many people who suffer with SAD, I started noticing that I felt awful in winter around 17/18 years old. Typically onset of symptoms appears between 18-30 years old and is about twice as common in females as males. I was diagnosed with SAD at 20 after visiting my doctor in 2003.

I had all the classic symptoms: finding it hard to get up, get moving, concentrate. I would feel weepy and down and/or irritable for no reason. And I just wanted to sleep and eat – stodgy carbohydrates in particular! I remember my first year university flatmate laughing when she saw my food basket – filled with several different breads and potatoes and a token bit of chicken! 😀

Looking back at those few winters I spent feeling like that, I can barely believe I felt so bad. I’m not really sure how I functioned to be honest, but I know I wasn’t a pleasant person to be around on some days! I’m very glad that I had a clued up doctor; I appreciate not everyone has been so lucky to be diagnosed quickly and have lived for many years not knowing why they felt so bad.

I’m being really honest and open because I want you to know that you’re not alone in feeling this way. Or if you’re hoping to provide support to a family member or friend, then I want to stress that this is a serious condition and it’s not ‘all in the mind’. I want to help people understand the realities of suffering from SAD and Winter Blues and know that although there is no ‘cure’, you can manage the symptoms. Also, a little support and understanding goes a long way! 🙂

What helps with SAD and Winter Blues symptoms?

According to SADA 85% of people can successfully manage their symptoms using light therapy, which is how I manage mine mostly. If light therapy doesn’t work for you, or isn’t enough on its own to manage your symptoms, then your doctor might recommend using anti-depressants and/or having some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) sessions. I’ve tried both!

CBT was very useful for encouraging me to be more compassionate towards myself when I’m struggling. I’m very perfectionist and hold myself at times to standards that I would never expect of someone else – but I’ll beat myself up about not getting things done or not being good company. I know many people with SAD do this! I’m slowly learning to give myself a break. I can also recommend Paul Gilbert’s compassion work.

Last year, my doctor also convinced me to take a low dose of antidepressant all year round. I say convinced because believe me, I really didn’t want to go on them! I had to do a lot of soul-searching to understand why I was so resistant and I think I will do a separate post on this, so won’t go into detail here. Suffice for now to say that the medication helps and I’ve finally accepted and am grateful for this help because what it comes down to is this: you don’t get given any medals for struggling on.

Honestly – I’ve taken this previous paragraph out and put it back in a few times because I am all-too-aware of the stigma of depression and using antidepressant medication. I still struggle with the idea I may be judged harshly. But I run this blog and my events because I want to show up – be real – and encourage you to do the same or we will never get past these stigmas in our society.

Get Help with SAD and Winter Blues!

If you think you have SAD or Winter Blues, I really do recommend you see your GP. Tell them how long you have been feeling as you have and describe all your symptoms as fully as you can. You might find it helpful to keep a simple diary of how you feel each day to show them. You really don’t have to live feeling like you’re a different person for half of your year. It might take you a little while to find the best management strategies for you, but understanding that you have SAD and that you’re not alone I hope will give you some comfort.

I’m going to do a separate, fuller post on treatments, but if you want some info in the meantime, you can take a look through some of the resources I’ve collected for you to read.

I hope this post has given you some useful information about what SAD and Winter Blues are – and some hope that you can feel better – but feel free to use the comments box below to ask any questions you might have.

– Neens –

Image credits:

http://www.freeimages.com/photo/baby-hedgehog-1623457

 

SAD basics – where to start?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and its milder form, Winter Blues (also known sometimes as Winter Depression, or medically as Sub-syndromal SAD) affects over a quarter of the UK population*. Does that surprise you? It did me! So even if you don’t suffer from one of these conditions yourself, it’s highly likely that someone close to you does. Read on to help you get up to speed with some SAD basics.

Eeyore looking sad and Tigger bouncingOne of my favourite ways to describe SAD is through these little fellas; Tigger and Eeyore. I tried out this analogy on a friend once and he loved it!

SAD is thought to be caused by a lack of light. During the late autumn and winter months, the shorter days and lack of sunlight can affect chemical levels in your brain, making you feel down, irritable, lethargic and unsociable – a bit like Eeyore. But in the spring and summer months you feel more ‘yourself’, and even in the depths of winter, a sunny day can bring out the Tigger in you! Some people even experience mania-type symptoms once spring comes round, known as Hypomania. That’s probably where everyone’s energy comes from for the big spring-clean! 😉 For a bit of fun, I found this quiz to identify which Winnie the Pooh character you’re most like – I turned out to be Kanga! 🙂 

SAD basics – the facts

SAD is a type of depression. I know some people aren’t comfortable with this description, but medically, they do sit on the same scale. What differentiates SAD from other types of depression is that it has a very definite seasonal pattern. You normally will have experienced symptoms in a particular season that disappear reliably in another season for three consecutive years before you would be diagnosed with SAD.

There are also other, rarer types of SAD that people suffer from, such as Summer SAD. This site mostly addresses Winter SAD and Winter Blues, as the most common form of the condition and the kind that I suffer from. Other tell-tale differences are that unlike ‘classic’ depression, you tend to want to sleep and eat more (usually carbs) when you suffer from SAD, whereas with ‘classic’ depression, people often lose their appetite and find it difficult to sleep. This is a very individual condition though, so it’s always worth checking any symptoms with your doctor, rather than self-diagnosing.

For interest, though, you might be wondering what are the other symptoms of SAD? Well, I mentioned some of the main ones already, but a few of the most common others include:

  • Bread with a heart cut out of the middleDisturbed sleep patterns 
  • Loss of interest in things you normally enjoy and social withdrawal
  • Craving carbohydrates and sweet foods (comfort food!)
  • Loss of libido
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating/feeling fuzzy-minded
  • Lowered immune system in winter

Managing SAD

There isn’t a ‘cure’ for SAD or Winter Blues. However, many people can successfully manage their symptoms using light therapy. The SAD Association estimates that this will work for around 85% of sufferers. Your doctor may also recommend treatment with medication and talking therapies. 

You’d normally use light therapy daily from the onset of your symptoms, often from around September until April when the daylight hours lengthen. The treatment involves exposure to a bright SAD light that simulates the level of light you would get on a bright spring day. How long you need to use the light for depends on the severity of your symptoms and the strength of the light. 

I whole-heartedly recommend giving light therapy a go – I have managed my symptoms since being diagnosed using a SAD light and a dawn simulator, which wakes me gently with light in the morning. I recommend dawn simulators to everyone, regardless of whether or not they suffer from SAD – they’re such a lovely way to wake up! 🙂 

I hope this introduction to some SAD basics has been helpful to you. I will write some more in-depth posts, but if you want more information on SAD and Winter Blues before then, please have a look at this NHS page and SADA’s website.

If you’re able to attend events in Newcastle upon Tyne, you can get a taste of what light therapy is all about at Little Light Room events.

What Winnie the Pooh character do you identify with? Is there something in particular that you’d like me to cover in a future post?

Take care!

-Neens x-

*http://www.theweathercompany.com/SAD%20research%20UK

Image credits:
Tigger and Eeyore: http://www.chicagonow.com/cheaper-than-therapy/2013/11/are-you-a-tigger-or-a-eeyore/
Bread: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/love-food-1306422