Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)—now called “mood disorder with seasonal pattern” by the diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals—is characterized by symptoms of depression. These can include sleep and appetite disturbances, changes in energy levels, irritability, feelings of hopelessness or excessive guilt, difficulty concentrating, loss of interest in typically enjoyable activities, self-hatred, and thoughts of suicide—all of which begin in the fall and remit in the spring. For some, depression is replaced by anxiety as the spring and summer months arrive. Some individuals experience the flip side of depression—mania—during the warmer months.
Severity can range from a mild case of the “winter blues” to symptoms that can significantly interfere with life functioning. The farther one lives from the equator, the greater the likelihood of suffering from SAD. Technically, to make the diagnosis, symptoms clearly should be attributable to changes in day length and not due to recurring psychosocial stressors; in reality, though, the impact of seasonal stressors is often difficult to parse out.
Both day length and seasonal stressors can affect mood. Some suggestions can help with soothing symptoms without silencing the wisdom that is often birthed from discomfort. In other words, it is important to approach the subject in a way that neither demonizes nor deifies feelings of melancholy that sometimes arise in the dark time of the year. Developing the ability to observe the discomfort of SAD with self-compassion and to work skillfully with the symptoms can increase capacity to cope with difficulties gracefully year round.
Many traditions acknowledge the interweaving of light and darkness. The Taoist yin/yang symbol is a familiar representation of this idea. Our language contains idioms such as “the night is darkest before the dawn.” A fetus grows in the darkness of the womb. A seed needs darkness to germinate. The yoga tradition describes three primary energy channels, called nadis. The pingala nadi is associated with characteristics such as action, planning and light, while the ida nadi is associated with self-reflection, rest and darkness. The central channel, the shushumna, contains the homeostatic oscillations of ida and pingala, weaving them together with a larger life force, or prana, giving birth to those “aha” moments.
Taoist philosopher Dr. Yi Wu, at the California Institute of Integral Studies, tells the story of a student who said to him, “How wonderful that the Taoists can enjoy walking in the rain with no umbrella.” Wu corrected the student. “No. If it is raining, a Taoist stays indoors. If he cannot be indoors, he uses an umbrella. If he can’t stay indoors and doesn’t have an umbrella, then he enjoys walking in the rain with no umbrella. The important thing is to take care of your nature the best you can in the situation you are in.” How can we put this flexibility of mind into practice in the dark time of the year?
Unlike bears, we don’t have to hibernate all winter. Few of us—even the most introverted and misanthropic—truly would wish to crawl into a cave and stay there for five months. We have some capacity to alter our surroundings to make them more comfortable. In the dark time of year, individuals and cultures find ways to bring in light, literally and metaphorically. We can turn on the lights and turn up the heat. We create celebrations and festivities, bringing a sense of abundance to an otherwise barren time of year.
On the other hand, these activities, when done in excess, can be an example of what some psychoanalysts call a “manic defense” against discomfort. Holidays can bring up thoughts of lost loved ones. Visiting with friends and relatives can trigger tendencies to compare our self unfavorably to others. Loneliness may be exacerbated when bombarded with images of happy families celebrating together. Simmering interpersonal conflicts may begin to boil when family members spend more time cooped up indoors together. In order to distract ourselves from discomfort, we may find ourselves spending more money than we really can afford or engaging in frenetic holiday preparations and parties that don’t truly nurture us. Everyone engages inthis behavior from time to time; however, too much can contribute to even more distress in the future.
Following are some suggestions for addressing SAD by accepting that some discomfort may be inevitable, exploring underlying thoughts and emotions, and soothing manifest symptoms. The darkness of depression, when used as a starting place for compassionate self-inquiry, can serve as a catalyst for growth.
Kristin Neff, Ph.D., has defined and developed ways to measure self-compassion. Practicing self-compassion can do much to relieve SAD symptoms. As mentioned, holidays have a way of eliciting self-criticism if we aren’t able to live up to media images of perfection. After the winter holidays, we may find ourselves with debts larger than we would like or feeling lonely once the festivities have died down. We may judge ourselves for wanting to sleep more and for being less productive.
What if it were okay to feel what we feel? What if it were okay to mourn a loss even when others are celebrating? What if it were okay to go to bed early in winter, take breaks from social interactions, or be a little less productive? Such changes are natural for many animal species. Does a bear judge itself for hibernating in the winter, or does the bear just do it? Human distress is often exacerbated by judging ourselves for having thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are quite natural given the situation.
Establishing a daily practice of self-compassionate self-inquiry—such as mindfulness, meditation or free writing—can create space to experience disavowed thoughts and feelings and soften habitual self-criticisms and invalidations. Such practices can help differentiate between activities that are born from our authentic self from those that constitute a “manic defense.” Practicing self-compassion and clarifying our own thoughts and feelings can also help flush out misunderstandings that arise in interpersonal relationships. These practices can enhance our year-round quality of life.
Developing compassionate self-inquiry practices can help discern the best use of personal energy. Spiritual teacher Carolyn Myss asks us to imagine that we are given a set amount of energy each day. When it is gone, it is gone. How will we put it to best use? Before the holidays, this may mean saying “no” to some activities. Afterwards, it may mean reaching out to others and engaging in simple, inexpensive social activities, such as game or movie nights to ease winter doldrums.
Get More Sun Light
At this time of year, the sun rises around 7 a.m. and sets around 4:30 p.m. Although the sun is present in between, many of us go to work in buildings with little natural light, entering these spaces shortly after sunrise and leaving after the sun has set. The impact of so little contact with the sun can be profound. Getting up before sunrise and going for a walk may not sound like fun, but developing the habit can be a true act of self-compassion; it is arguably the single most effective approach to addressing the physiological impact of light deprivation. Going outside at noon can also help.
A light box or dawn simulator may be used to supplement natural light. They are typically used for 30 minutes in the morning. A light box may be used in combination with meditating with eyes open, allowing the light to fall indirectly on eyes.
Recognizing our Connection to Nature
In the late 1950s, Pete Seeger wrote the song “Turn, Turn, Turn,” based on chapter 3 of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes:
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted…”
Recognizing that our own moods, thoughts and behaviors vary and turn along with the natural world can, perhaps paradoxically, help us to find a sense of inner calm no matter what the season.