How To Cope With Seasonal Affective Disorder During Lockdown
The UK’s second lockdown has been a bitter pill to swallow for many people after the first lockdown ground our daily lives to a halt.
While the first lockdown was somewhat hard, the summer weather and long days arguably eased the stress of it all slightly, but this time round we’re greeted with cold days and longer nights.
With lockdown 2.0 happening over the course of November, a month known for its dreary weather, it’s left a lot of us struggling to cope once again. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying I’m already finding this month’s lockdown quite hard, but for some people, every November is hard – lockdown or not.
Those who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that can occur depending on the season, can find the winter months particularly difficult. Typically, it’s the autumn and winter months that those with SAD will see their symptoms beginning to flare up, but some may feel it in summer, too.
Therapist of 18 years Zoe Clews explained to UNILAD what SAD is exactly, and some of the symptoms those with SAD may experience:
Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression that happens at the same time each year, typically in winter. It affects your mood, your sleep, your appetite and your energy levels.
It can really take its toll on all aspects of your life; from your relationships, social life, work, school and your sense of self-worth. Sense of self-worth can really plummet with SAD – that’s what I’ve noticed with clients.
Zoe continued, ‘You might feel yourself feeling like a completely different person than what you did in the summer; hopeless, sad, tense, stressed, a lack of motivation. It affects around 1-2% of the population, with women and young people being especially vulnerable to it. There’s milder forms [of SAD] known as the ‘winter blues’ that can affect up to 10-20% of people.’
Other symptoms can include loss of appetite, drinking more alcohol, avoiding people and things you enjoy, and having little interest in sex or physical contact.
Agreeing with Zoe, specialist sleep psychotherapist Heather Darwall-Smith said approximately 20% of people will find themselves suffering with one or more symptoms of SAD due to the lack of daylight in winter. She added that the further you are from the equator, the higher the risk of experiencing SAD.
Speaking about the correlation between SAD and lack of daylight, Heather told UNILAD:
During winter, as the days get shorter and levels of sunlight drop, your body can feel like it wants more sleep than it needs. The body is programmed to respond to light and other external environmental cues, or ‘zeitgebers’, which can influence the body’s internal clock.
During winter, exposure to electric light increases and these external light-dark cues can get disrupted causing a drop in serotonin levels. This can cause seasonal desynchronisation in the sleep-wake cycle, which can be heightened in the winter, affecting not only our appetite (which is increased), and energy levels (which are lower), but also our emotional and mental health.
One person who experiences SAD is Nicky, 38. At the age of 27 he began suffering with anxiety, but noticed how his mood had become largely affected by the weather in the last couple of years. Nicky explained that his anxiety wasn’t too bad at the beginning of the first lockdown, but has seen it worsen during the second.
He told UNILAD, ‘One day, when I was about 27, I just [started feeling different]. I spent the first five or six years with it just trying to get rid of it and I did do a reasonably good job and I was on a good level, but then it kind of got worse and worse and I thought, ‘Sh*t man, I’ve got to do something about this’.’
It’s been in the last year or two that I’ve begun to notice that when the weather was sh*t, I actually felt a lot grimmer for some reason.
I have three days on the trot where it was raining and I was feeling completely sh*t. Then, the sun would come out and I’d randomly think, ‘You know what, I actually feel a bit more chipper today’.
Nicky isn’t alone in his feelings. 29-year-old Elisabeth, a freelance graphic designer from London, also shares the experience.
Elisabeth says her symptoms started a few years ago, and she now often travels somewhere warmer during the winter months as a way of coping with her SAD.
She told UNILAD, ‘I noticed that I was suffering with SAD around six or seven years ago. I started feeling really, really down during winter and not having any inspiration to do anything.’
I feel a loss of joy for life and feel like I’m in ‘fight or flight’ mode all the time. It’s like survival mode and only doing things that are vital for my being instead of having any joy to do anything else besides just existing.
Elisabeth argued that with winter seeing less daylight, the body needs more time for hibernation.
While she typically goes somewhere warmer during winter, this year Elisabeth has decided to ’embrace winter’ and go to her home-country of Estonia for a few weeks to visit her family and friends. She was able to travel there prior to the lockdown starting again in the UK.
In regards to embracing the cold this year, Elisabeth describes it as a ‘spiritual challenge’, adding that, ‘When you really embrace something and really focus in this moment and kind of being in a state of surrender, it kind of feels a bit more easy.’
Looking at coping with SAD in general, sleep specialist Heather advises looking into light therapy, also known as heliotherapy. According to Heather, around 30 minutes of waking in daylight or sitting near a light-box that produces very bright light, designed to simulate sunlight during the morning can be hugely beneficial for people around this time of year.
In regards to handling a winter lockdown, Heather advises trying have at least a 10-minute walk everyday if it’s a nice day, as well as keeping light levels at a minimum in an evening, and to expose yourself to lots of light in the morning to maintain your circadian rhythm (your natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle).
Meanwhile, Zoe emphasised the importance of selfcare and treating yourself with ‘huge, huge, huge compassion’ during times like these.
My top tips for everything is self care. One of the things that happens when we have mental health issues is that we start to beat ourselves up for it, so we go into judgement. That sends us further into the trenches and we start to feel ashamed.
Zoe added, ‘Three things we feel with things like SAD are feeling low, beating ourselves up and feeling ashamed, and we need to say to ourselves ‘this is temporary’ because one of the symptoms of these things is thinking that it’s permanent.’
You can find out more about SAD here.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.