Nobody Asked Me But: Nothing funny about seasonal affective disorder

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‘Tis the season to be jolly, right? Fa-la-la-la-la, right? So why are so many of us beginning to submerge our souls in the winter blahs? Even though seasonal cheer and “good will to all” are just beginning to descend upon us and are supposedly filling our lives with happiness and joy, we know in our hearts that the blues are lurking just around the corner. For some of us (between one and 10 per cent of North Americans), a syndrome called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is more than just a case of the “grumps” souring our moods. It can be completely debilitating to the point where sufferers are left with a “why bother?” attitude towards life.

There’s nothing funny about SAD. It is associated with irritability, loss of interest in daily activities, oversleeping, craving isolation and feeling hopeless. Many of those afflicted with SAD seem to have an incessant hunger for carbs, which causes them to put on excess weight. A lesser percentage lose interest in food altogether and, subsequently, experience a reduction in weight. The depression can be so severe that it may lead some to contemplate thoughts of suicide.

SAD was first identified in the 1980s and appears to be four times more common in women than in men. At first, the disorder was thought to be caused by an excess of the hormone melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle of the brain. Another theory at the time was that the circadian rhythms of the body were thrown off by the phase shift caused when our wake-sleep cycles did not coincide with the daylight-nighttime hours. Both of these hypotheses have since been debunked and researchers now believe SAD is due simply to lack of sunlight alone. This would explain why the occurrence of SAD increases the farther away from the equator that one lives.

What separates SAD from other forms of depression is that it occurs generally at the same time every year, lasts at least two months, and seems to disappear in the off season. Often, sufferers will begin to feel symptoms in the fall (perhaps in anticipation of the cold months ahead) and will finally pull out of their seasonal lows in the early spring.

What is funny, but not in a ha-ha way, is how people who fall under the SAD umbrella are made to feel somehow inadequate because they can’t just give themselves a “kick in the pants” and snap out of their doldrums. As in some other conditions and diseases that are not evident to the observer’s eye, those who have been diagnosed with SAD are often stigmatized and made to feel guilty for not just getting on with life.

There are steps we can take to defeat, or at least minimize, SAD. First and foremost, we must get ourselves outside to expose our bodies to outdoor light. In cold or wet climes, even a few minutes at a time can make all the difference between getting back to our normal, perfectly adjusted selves, or being stuck in that twilight world of zombie-like melancholy. Out here in the northwest corner of the continent, we may need a warm bath and a hot toddy to heat up our innards when we get back inside, but our mood will almost certainly take a turn for the better.

Another sure-fire cure for SAD is to put our bodies in motion with some regimen of exercise. We may choose to walk, jog, cycle or hula-hoop for just a short period of time or, for those of us in better shape, until we collapse from exhaustion. Somehow this activity stimulates the endorphins in our brain and fools our control centre into thinking we’re having a good time.

If outdoor light and exercise don’t do the trick, it might be time to try something more drastic. We just might have to get out of town and head south to some exotic locale that sports more than six hours of daylight and a temperature higher than the reading we would get on the surface of Pluto. For those of us inhabiting the higher latitudes of North America, destinations such as Mexico and the Caribbean might be just the cure for these nagging seasonal blues. Warm breezes, hot sand and non-stop sunshine can go a long way towards massaging us back to our normal upbeat temperament. If we find ourselves roaming a vast ice sheet in Antarctica, however, we’ve probably gone too far south.

Unfortunately, travel to a steamier geographic location might not be a feasible financial option for those of us with cash flow limitations. Zipping off to Zanzibar for a fortnight just doesn’t seem a likely possibility when we feel chained to a low-paying job or to mandatory domestic duties. What is possible, however, is to simply get closer to the window. It sounds cheeky, I know, but even on a grey, rainy day, there is some natural light filtering through the glass. If we spend enough time standing or sitting close by and absorbing the penetrating beleaguered rays, we may find our spirits lifted by the chemical reactions created within our bodies.

Another method to beat the SAD blahs is to force ourselves to socialize more. Isolating ourselves because we feel depressed leads to feeling depressed because we feel alone. It’s a vicious “Catch-22” circle where we feel solitary and unloved after breaking off all the social connections that remind us that we are relevant and that others care about us. Even having a good argument with someone can be much more invigorating than sitting alone in an armchair while staring at the blank wall. We may find that by reaching out for social contact, we may reach that part of ourselves that feels buried deep in what seems to be a bottomless pit.

Nobody asked me, but it appears that the only seasonal thing people with SAD have to share at this time of year is their depression. Seeing others smiling, laughing and frolicking in the holiday spirit only intensifies the emptiness inside. Hopefully, some of the steps touched upon in this column may begin to set the wheels in motion towards a more balanced outlook on life. With a pinch of faith and a dash of good luck, it may not be such a fa-la-la-la way to go.

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