Tag Archives: SAD symptoms

Out of the other side… again

I have started writing so many times over this autumn and winter to share my experiences with you and stopped myself. Because I haven’t posted since August, I’ve been giving myself a hard time.

I tell myself and other people that the reason I didn’t post is that I felt I needed to come out of the other side before I have any useful lessons to share.

While that is true, it’s only part of it. The other part is that I became very symptomatic this year and I felt ashamed of myself. I beat myself up asking myself, “how can you possibly hope to help others when you can’t even manage this condition yourself, Neina?”

I was so annoyed with myself! I’ve invested so much time, money and energy in learning how to manage the condition; not just with light, but also tackling general wellbeing and mindset aspects and building helpful habits. I felt like I’d taken five steps backwards!

Now I’m feeling more my usual self, I can reflect and realise that it’s not that I ‘can’t’ manage the condition. It’s that this year, I didn’t do it well! As a result, it was like going right back to before I was diagnosed and started learning how to stave off the symptoms.

Here we go again…

You might have read my previous post where I talk about the sudden arrival of these anxiety symptoms. Each year for four years now, it’s been the same – sometime in October – bam! It’s like a switch flicks and these symptoms just arrive! I was on antidepressants the last two years which definitely took the edge off, so it was a shock to experience the full effects of this again after coming off them!

I wake up feeling nauseous. My heart races as if I’ve just sprinted, even though I’ve been resting. I tremble uncontrollably as if I’m freezing cold. My hair falls out. I have unexplained dry skin patches that appear suddenly. I lose my appetite, so feel like I’m forcing food down and it makes me gag. I’m really thirsty. I have dizzy spells. My stomach is bad. Arggghhhhh!

I’m sure you can imagine how challenging it was to get on with normal day-to-day life when I was feeling this way physically – the racing heart and shaking, in particular, were so distracting and really upset me. I got worried that people could tell and fretted about what they’d think of me. Clearly, those thoughts are bound to feed the anxiety!

This year it lasted for five weeks, but it felt like so much longer! It disappeared as suddenly as it arrived, in early December.

I suspect this is a Seasonal Affective Disorder thing. My theory is that it’s possibly being triggered by sudden changes in light levels and sending the brain chemicals haywire. It seems to coincide with the clocks going back. Also, November up here in Greenside, Tyne & Wear, was a month of almost unbroken heavy grey cloud and rain – it didn’t seem to get light all month! By contrast, December onwards has felt more balanced.

After this, I had what I would recognise as more typical SAD symptoms, for me – being ‘up and down’, with brain fog, irritability, tiredness, lack of motivation to do things I normally enjoy, feeling less sociable, losing confidence and being hard on myself. Some days I felt great; others I felt a mess. And then in early February, I felt like I suddenly got ‘me’ back again.

Learning points

Talking it over with a couple of friends, they’ve helped me to realise that while it was tough to go through, I can choose to be grateful for this reminder of just how awful SAD can be when I’m not managing it proactively. I wasn’t grateful at the time though – I’m not that virtuous yet! 😉

But coming out of the other side and looking back over autumn and winter, it galvanises me to think about how many other people are going through this each and every year. I realise I got complacent and that’s why I didn’t manage it so well this year.

It also leads me to analyse what might have made the difference this year, which as ever, isn’t clear-cut:

  • The weather – November was very grey
  • Getting less natural light and exercise – I used to walk briskly for 20 minutes to work each morning in the daylight even in the depths of winter, but this year I was starting my working day inside before it got light and wasn’t doing much else exercise-wise
  • Poor lighting – I moved in late September and the ceiling light is poor where I work at home. I wasn’t using my SAD light consistently either
  • Changed routine – since moving in with my fiance I’ve been inconsistent with practising a morning routine – I had previously been doing exercise, meditation, gratitude practice, affirmations, using my light while I ate breakfast, etc., but I fell off the wagon again!
  • Life changes – once again, I’ve been through a period of change on the career, home and relationship fronts. In this last year, I was made redundant, went self-employed, got engaged, moved in with my fiance and his dog to a semi-rural village, and we’re adapting to life as a new family with his fantastic kids staying every other weekend – phew!

I do feel frustrated looking back on this now. It’s not that I was unaware of any of it the last few months – just that I was symptomatic and so I felt lacking in motivation and was beating myself up about it!

Going forward?

As spring’s coming in, I’ve naturally begun to feel more energised and motivated, so I’m now taking walks in the morning light in addition to the lunchtime walks I take, and I’ve reintroduced some other elements of my morning routine. It’s easier once I’m not symptomatic, of course!

I’m also in the very early stages of developing Lightopia CIC, so I’m doing a lot of research and mapping around the light and wellbeing arena. I hope that I learn some new information that could help and will keep you posted.

Some people have suggested that it’s possible that I’ve developed an unconscious anxiety about autumn coming in, so I might explore that some more. Other friends have pointed out that I fight with this a lot; I don’t accept it. I had been flowing with it more in previous years and showing myself more compassion, but I definitely got angry at it all and myself a lot more this year! So that’s another area to work on!

Really, though, I think that proactive management via healthy habits are the key. I need to find some way of keeping myself on track to prevent the symptoms from taking over.

I’d be interested in hearing if you have any experience or tips to share! Feel free to comment on this post, or send me an email.

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.

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