Planning for the New World: A Q&A with Mark Atkinson
10th October 2019 4 minutes read
Though it's clear as day(light) to me now, it took me quite a while to realise I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. As it's World Mental Health Day, I thought I'd share a bit about it.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. SAD is sometimes known as "winter depression" because the symptoms are usually more apparent and more severe during the winter.
It was my mum who first suggested I had to SAD in my early twenties. But I wasn't convinced. I wasn't sure that it was really a thing nor something I had the right or entitlement to "label" myself as having. Who doesn't feel gloomier on a grey day and happier when the sun is shining? But thanks to my lovely mum for pointing out my symptoms and my pattern of behaviour being linked to sunlight and sunshine it became more and more apparent to me.
Here's what my SAD feels like and what I've done to fight it...
You may not know me personally, but I reckon I can get away with describing myself as pretty energetic, driven, smiley and sociable. Yet come the Autumn I can start to dread the months ahead. Through the winter and on grey days I can feel so tired. I struggle to get out of bed. If I'm at home I just want to sleep and grab a nap quick that can then last 2-3 hours even though I've had 9 hours sleep that night. If I'm in the office, I want to hunt down a quiet meeting room and shut my eyes. The idea of meeting up with friends and family feels exhausting so I decline invites and say I'm busy so I don't have to go out. I eat more. Drink more. I get teary for no reason. I feel like I'm no fun.
It's hugely frustrating that sunshine and daylight has such an impact on how I feel.
Thankfully, I got fed up with being fed up and wanted to put up a fight. I can't remember why I finally realised I needed to and could do something to fight this cloud over my head. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy sessions I was having for low mood and anxiety most certainly helped. I also spoke to my GP and then I put a SAD combat plan in place.
People: To start off with, I told my family and friends about my low mood and SAD. This was back in 2014/15 which isn't that long ago but it felt like a big deal at the time. I ready can't believe how far the conversation about mental health has progressed since then. Thank goodness it has!
I also spoke to my doctor more seriously about my low mood. By calling it out we are now able to discuss the what impact future treatments for other conditions might have or be having on my mental health.
Activity: I transformed my approach to exercise and eating (thanks, Jo Wicks!). I always knew that exercise makes people feel better but with a busy life and a long commute I'd let this slip. After the first month of slogging through HIIT workouts and eating significantly less sugar I felt so much better. On grey days I make sure I do a workout, even if it's only 10 minutes. I also avoid the booze...well...I at least try to have less! Thanks to this change I feel so much fitter and leaner; a rather nice side effect and feel good factor!
Stuff: I fitted LED lights (Hue Lightbulbs) around my house that I could brighten up to a brilliant white, replacing the need to sit close to a white-light box (incidentally, these light boxes are called SAD Lamps in the UK but Happy Lamps in the US. I prefer the latter). I bought a Dawn Simulator (a Lumie Lamp). It means my room gradually brightens like the sun is rising before my alarm goes off, meaning there is less shock to the system than waking up to a pitch black room. I recommend my Lumie Lamp to everyone!
Sunshine: I totally appreciate this is luxury that not everyone can do but I've made a mindful decision about when I take my holidays. I've started arranging holiday for November or February to get me away from the grey months to somewhere sunny and, preferably, hot. I stay in the UK in the summer and pray for lovely weather!
Dougie: Now I know you can't all have a Dougie but getting a dog was the absolute best thing I did. He makes sure I get out of the house every day. I can walk for miles with him. I walk into town when I would have driven. I sit in coffee shops with him at my feet. I never feel alone, have his unconditional love and get that Vitamin D top up by getting outside. He is my sunshine!
This combination of actions has helped me enormously. I now acknowledge, accept and know how to combat my SAD. These types of interventions aren't uniquely good for SAD - many are great practice for anyone suffering with low mood. I do still have grey and dark days where I find the effects on my energy hard to fight - the tiredness is still a thing - but mostly I'm able to crack on, be myself and be happy.
This is my own personal experience. Like all health conditions, mental or physical, SAD manifests differently from person to person and has varying levels of severity.
You can read some more about SAD, its symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment here: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad/