I’ve been seen as the stereotypical California blonde all my life, blonde hair, fair skin, light eyes. People always expect someone like me to be cheerful and bubbly, happy and never, ever down. But this Cali-blonde had kept a secret for years because of what I erroneously was made to feel was a stigma. I suffer from SAD aka Seasonal Affective Disorder. The cold, dreary months of winter are a harsh slap in the face that makes me miserable.
In the past, professionals used to describe SAD as a type of depression. There was that word: depression, a word associated with a mental illness. Let me be clear about depression. There are people who are clinically depressed and whose depression worsens significantly in cold and sunless months. Their SAD is only a symptom of the real reason for their depression. If you are feeling depressed or sad most of the time, not just in the winter, you need to see a professional who can diagnose and help treat you through medications and therapy. There is no stigma and no one should have to suffer.
The thing about my SAD though, was that I’d never felt down and miserable during warm weather, whether there were sunny days or cloudy. I wasn’t depressed, I was reacting to the cold weather. Today, therapists classify this type of SAD not as a depression, but as a disorder that occurs during certain months to light-eyed individuals due to a severe lack of vitamin D and normal sunlight. Symptoms start in the fall and continue throughout the dark and dreary winter months into the early cold months of spring, sapping energy and increasing a feeling of moodiness.
I was a child who hated snow and cold. I was not someone who happily built snowmen or was thrilled to go sledding down icy slopes. I did these things reluctantly simply to ‘fit in’ with other kids. I never let on that I was down or unhappy because somewhere along the way I picked up from the adults in my life that ‘being unhappy was a sign of a mental illness’, seen as a stigma back then. In the parlance of one of my childhood friends whose aunt had been hospitalized for mental illness, anyone who didn’t act like everyone else was ‘a nutcase’. God forbid I told anyone that cold dark days made me feel sad! As a child, all I knew was that I didn’t want to be known as a nutcase or spend time in a hospital. I pretended to be a sunny little girl even while I felt completely miserable during the fall and winter months.
My secret was kept during my teens and into adulthood. I learned to keep my misery to myself. Only once did I let it slip at work that I didn’t like the cold dreary months which are so much a part of the northeast life. Winter, I said adamantly, was so miserable, a terrible time of year.
“What’s wrong with you?” asked a colleague in surprise. “Winter is the best time of the year. Who in their right mind likes summer heat?” I do, I wanted to answer but kept my words to myself. I didn’t want anyone to think that there was anything ‘wrong’ with me or that I wasn’t in my ‘right mind’.
As I got older, I still pretended that the weather and the lack of sunshine didn’t matter to me but doing so cost me a lot. I was constantly putting on what I called the ‘ha-ha, smile-smile’ show during the cold, dark months, and it was draining. It added to the tired feeling I already felt during this time of the year.
All this changed about fifteen years ago while I was doing research for an article I was writing on best-selling authors. I came across a short bit in a news blog about Barbara Hambly. What she said in the blog both startled me and justified what I had been feeling for years. She admitted, quite candidly, that she had always intensely disliked the cold, sunless time of year that is winter. She suffered from SAD. Hambly, who is one of the top-selling American authors of the past fifty years, was the first famous person I had heard of who felt as I did during the cold months of the year, and she was willing to talk about the disorder in public. It was quite normal for some people to be SAD during cold weather!
Researching SAD, I found that there are natural remedies that can help alleviate SAD feelings such as fifteen-thirty minutes of light therapy a day. This can be gotten from walking outside when the sun is high and visible or from the rays of a light box. Light boxes are available without a prescription, but, be warned. There may be with side effects such as migraine headaches and UV exposure. Be sure to do your research and get one that filters out dangerous UV rays.
Exercising helps too. Create an exercise routine, something simple that you will do about four times a week for as little as twenty minutes each time. The frequency of exercising, rather than the duration, has been shown to have positive effects in lifting your mood and increasing your energy levels.
Don’t forget food. “Food can boost your mood,” says noted dietician and nutritionist Joy Bauer, MS, RD, CD. A diet that includes green leafy vegetables, citrus, and vitamins C and D, are highly recommended by her.
If possible, taking a winter vacation to a warmer clime helps alleviate the winter blues. Just a week of pure sunshine, (there’s that natural vitamin D again!), and warmth on your body can reap a month of benefits on your mood.
Don’t rule out support groups. You can find them online or call your local mental health center for information about SAD support groups in your area.
If natural remedies don’t help, seek out the help of your health care provider. There are medications that can help you alleviate the symptoms of SAD. Remember that these feelings are normal for you, (everyone is different and someone who actually enjoys the cold is not you, so don’t base how you should feel on their feelings), but that you don’t have to suffer through them without help. If you suffer from SAD take steps to help yourself get through the dark time that is winter in many areas. Your feelings are completely valid, and you’re definitely not alone.