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What is it like to have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

For many people, looking out the window is a pleasant thing. Birds, trees and the sky can all bring a smile. But for Melissa Lewis, 47, of Prescott, AZ, it had a different effect.

“When I was living in Minnesota, I remember looking outside and thinking, ‘Oh no. No sun today? No sun tomorrow? in early March, she was dealing with intense fatigue. All she wanted was to sleep until spring. “I felt trapped,” she says.

Lewis was later diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that affects 10 million people in the United States. It is most common during the fall and winter months, when the days are shorter and there is less sun on our skin. It can be confused with other problems. You can also have it in spring or summer. “Paradoxically, people with seasonal affective disorder in the spring and summer may have too much light,” says Rebecca Brendel, MD, JD, president of the American Psychiatric Association.

Not the same as ‘Winter Blues’

You may feel depressed in the winter and not have SAD. But if severe fatigue lasts for days and is accompanied by other symptoms, you might want to see your doctor to see what’s causing it, whether it’s SAD or something else.

Lewis knows this well. Every year when the days got shorter, she noticed that she didn’t want to do her normal activities. She also felt lethargic and had strong food cravings. “I couldn’t eat enough starches,” she says. These symptoms lasted for days or even months, and only subsided when the sun began to drag on longer.

Many years and several doctors later, a naturopathic doctor suggested that Lewis get checked out for seasonal affective disorder. Before that, she had gone from doctor to doctor, trying treatments that didn’t work. She tried to do her own research, but kept failing. “I only remember reading a book on seasonal affective disorder,” she says. “I knew it wasn’t normal. But I was a busy mother, recently divorced, and like many mothers…my children and others came first.

Lewis says his GP did tests to rule out other conditions, and the process led to his diagnosis of SAD. “I had a lot of tests. I was low in vitamin D,” she says. “I’ve had an autoimmune disease since I was younger and later found out I had ADHD. , but nothing explained my seasonal depression.”

Even if you don’t have SAD, it’s best to get help for winter symptoms, says Brendel. If you are a caregiver, family member or friend, be careful of your loved ones. “If someone is skipping holiday meetings or just not being themselves, it’s best to ask how they’re doing,” she says. “If the symptoms are causing problems day after day, contact your doctor. Asking for help does not mean that it will be diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, but having constant problems with sleep or depression should always be treated.

Exclude other causes

Symptoms of SAD can vary from person to person. They also appear with other conditions. So doctors will rule out other issues before landing on a diagnosis of SAD, as Lewis’ GP did.

“The first thing we want to do is make sure there’s no underlying medical condition,” Brendel says. “We make a [thyroid] running test or look for things like anemia, which can really tire you out. We suggest a basic medical workup and check for other mood disorders such as bipolar depression. Whatever we find, we take it seriously.

Treat SAD

Treatments are fairly standard for people with seasonal affective disorder. “I recommend people with SAD spend more time outdoors and in the sun when they can,” says Atlanta psychiatrist Valdesha DeJean, MD. “Phototherapy lamps can help recreate a sunny environment, but they must be used in the right dosage and for the right amount of time. We will also prescribe antidepressants in some cases.

Lewis found the greatest relief in several alternative therapies. “I have had success with acupuncture, supplements (5-HTP) and red light therapy.” Although research is needed to see if it works for SAD, Lewis says red light therapy helped her fairly quickly. She has also found, like many others, that getting out in the sun is still one of the best cures – and it was one of the things her GP and many doctors strongly recommend for people with SAD.

“I make sure I have time outside,” Lewis says. “I walk around or just sit outside. It really helps. It has become a family affair. “My children know that I have seasonal affective disorder and that sleep and physical activity are family priorities. They also learned a greater level of empathy and compassion.

If you are in a climate where there is not much sun? “I encourage people to travel to warmer climates during the winter months if they can,” DeJean says. “It’s a good time to take advantage of these vacation days.”

Lewis says she’s seen a huge improvement after moving from Minnesota to Arizona, where there’s a lot more sunshine. But no matter where you live, she says taking care of her health is how she got through some of her toughest days. “The most important thing is to look at your life in a different way,” she says. “Your body speaks to you. He talks to you all the time.

Sunnier days ahead

Lewis also made other changes that helped her.

Nutrition was at the top of her list. “I started eating gluten-free, cutting out processed foods, alcohol, and most added sugars,” she says. “I wouldn’t suggest trying these changes in the middle of the season or adding anything you remove when the sun goes down.” Although Lewis has found these changes useful for herself, gluten-free diets or any other nutritional intervention have so far not been shown to be effective treatments for SAD.

Another help for Lewis? Yoga. She practices it regularly, gives lessons and has written a book entitled The angel dresses in prana. (Prana is a term used in yoga to describe breath and life.) She also practices a movement called grounding that involves time outdoors and meditation, and she works as a massage therapist and holistic counselor after having worked for years as a corporate wellness consultant. .

Looking back, Lewis found that putting herself last was part of the reason it took so long to be diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder. “We all give so much to our children, to our partners, that sometimes we forget to make sure everything is okay,” she says. Taking a firm interest in her own health and learning the art of saying no freed her to deal with SAD and feel better.

“Just because something is common doesn’t mean we have to live that way,” as Brendel puts it.

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