Darker Days - Handel Behavioral Health
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Darker Days

What it’s like to live with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

December 16, 2023

Amy Mauro

“I struggled to get myself out of bed, and while everyone likes an occasional pajama day, no one wants four months of PJ day, it’s sort of self-loathing.”

Some of us find refuge in the arrival of winter. Many of us, however, dread the harsh temperatures and impending darkness that keeps us inside. 

Growing up in Minnesota, Mandy and her neighbors withstood seven hours of daylight and below freezing temperatures with activities like knitting and collaging. 

“It didn’t occur to me that Seasonal Affective Disorder was a thing. We’d just stay inside and find something to do when it was too cold to be out,” says Mandy. 

Years later, when Mandy moved to a small coastal town in the Northeast, the shorter, darker days triggered unfamiliar feelings of sadness, sluggishness, and cravings of carbs. 

“I knew that something was off. I’m someone who enjoys being social and active but those parts of me shut down,” says Mandy. 

 About 5% of adults in the US experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD, and it typically lasts about 40% of the year, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

SAD is a form of depression, and many people with SAD experience mood changes and symptoms similar to depression: including feeling sad, losing interest in activities once enjoyed, changes in appetite, changes in sleep patterns, loss of energy, feeling worthless or guilty, difficulty concentrating or completing tasks, and acts of self-harm or thoughts of suicide. 

People with SAD typically start to experience symptoms during the fall and winter months when there’s less exposure to sunlight. 

“It’s a predictable shift in mood and energy levels,” says Mandy. 

She says that being able to connect her feelings of sadness, slowness, and sleepiness with seasonal affective disorder helps her take preventative measures to stay grounded and energized throughout the season. 

In the following blog, Mandy shares her lived experiences with seasonal affective disorder, and offers practical tips on how to manage her symptoms.

A sudden change

I’d just given birth to my son when I experienced the longest and coldest winter of my life. I found myself craving carbs and sugar, and as much as I wanted to go outside, the darkness and oppressive cold kept me in. 

If I didn’t have structure in my day or if a plan fell through I’d feel deeply depressed.  

I struggled to get out of bed, and while everyone likes an occasional pajama day, no one wants four months of PJ day- it’s just sort of self-loathing. 

Naturally, I connected my feelings of lethargy and sadness to postpartum depression. 

As I learned more about Seasonal Affective Disorder from people in the community, I talked to my therapist about my feelings. She suggested I buy a light box for improving my mood and energy levels.

Coming back to self

Initially, I laughed at the thought of buying a light box for helping me feel better, but having that special source of light every morning for 30 minutes really improves my mood.

I took a job as a lifeguard at my local community center, which proves to be better than sitting in my pajamas all day. The warm water and ability to exercise takes me away from my feelings of gloom. It gives me a sense of purpose and connection to my community which brings me out of my sadness.

I built more structure in my morning and evening routines. Instead of scrolling through my Facebook feed before going bed, I give myself time to read. I’m ritualistic about exercising in the morning, to boost my energy levels and improve my mood throughout the day. 

I also spoke with my health care provider about getting my Vitamin D levels tested. I found that I’m deficient and rely on a supplement and foods that supply higher levels of vitamin D, like fatty fish and eggs. It’s especially important for those of us who live in a part of the country where winters are cold and grey to figure out how we’ll get enough vitamin D without the sun.

Lastly, I try my best to give to others. Winter’s darkness can tempt me to stay inside and isolate myself, and while self-care is important, there’s no better feeling that lending a hand or smile to others.

Working with a therapist to understand and treat your symptoms of SAD

If you think you may have SAD, especially if you’re experiencing significant feelings of depression or thoughts of suicide, the first step is to talk to a trained mental health provider. 

A therapist or counselor trained in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) may help you understand and recognize your thought patterns associated with the symptoms of SAD, and help you replace them with positive and empowering thoughts. Your therapist may help you discover healthy solutions, rooted in lifestyle changes, to improve your mood and energy levels throughout the season. 

Your therapist may also suggest light therapy to balance your body’s natural circadian rhythm and increase the amount of serotonin in your brain, which directly impacts your mood. 

If your symptoms of depression are more severe and long-lasting, your therapist may connect you with a trained psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner to administer and manage the appropriate medication. 

Our trained therapists and clinicians at Handel Behavioral Health are here for you all year long, and will help you move through the darker days into days where you will be able to feel more light from purchasing a light box, building some CBT skills as well, getting fresh air, introducing some exercise, building routines, and getting out into one’s community. 

To start working with one of our therapists in our offices in Franklin, Amherst, West Springfield, Wilbraham, Natick, or online throughout the state of Massachusetts, contact us today at (413) 343-4357.

About The Author

Nettie Hoagland Headshot

Nettie Hoagland is a writer with experience in local news reporting, nonprofit communications, and community development. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in Media Studies, Journalism, and Digital Arts from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. Nettie believes in the healing power of the arts to create connection and community. She is passionate about using writing as an instrument for personal and social growth in the field of mental health. She is currently based in Brooklyn, NY.