Seasonal Affective Disorder: A Plan of Attack

Since leaving the ever-sunny South at age 18, I have experienced definite mood disorder during the fall and winter months, and it’s more pronounced after becoming a mother. We as mothers are more susceptible to the changes that seasons bring, particularly in the gloomy months. We have fewer pleasurable distractions, fewer opportunities to help ourselves, fewer outs than we did before our lives at home with children.

I deeply admire those mothers who delight in the still, homey indoor time of the fall and winter; candlelight and fireplaces on dark December afternoons; watching the fresh snow fall and being thrilled at the idea of 5 more days inside; snuggling with children in a dimly lit living room reading books and drinking hot cocoa.

But for me, whether it’s nature or nurture or a combination of both, I am solar-powered. All those winter home and hearth images seem so romantic, but they are not my reality. Sunshine means cheerfulness, optimism,  motivation, and easy joy. Lack of sunlight means listlessness and blues that eventually, and very suddenly, devolve into disorientation and borderline despair.

Fortunately, with the self-awareness that prayer and good advice  have brought, I have learned that Seasonal Affective Disorder need not be such a burden for me and my family. I beat myself up for a few years thinking it was attributable to a pathetic lack of sanctity, but I now know that it’s mostly related to physiology, which can be helped so that the real struggle for holiness can continue!

The winter requires self-knowledge and careful planning. Yes, we plan out our winter days based around my need for sunlight and activity and adequate social time. But it’s more vain for me to pretend I can cope with the darkness and solitude of the winter and then drag around in a sometimes-alarming state of hopelessness from November to March, bringing the family down with me. In our home, winter is not a time for hibernating or nesting. We may even miss out on some winter traditions. But I know what I have to do, and we do it, beginning in late October, before we get so far into fall and winter that the cycle has begun:

(1) In October, replace “soft white” lightbulbs with full spectrum bulbs, or the really bright fluorescent ones.

(2) Immediately upon waking in the morning, open all shades and blinds and turn on all lights. (This sets circadian rhythms and makes a huge difference for my sleep as well as my mood and daytime-nighttime orientation.)

(3) Exercise in the morning, after sunrise if possible. If exercise before sunrise is necessary (it usually is for me), don’t worry, we’ll be going outside again later in the morning…

(4) Go outside every morning that it’s not pouring rain, as early as possible and for as long as possible, whether the sunlight is direct or partly cloud-covered. Layer clothing and take the children for a brisk walk, and try to find the sunniest spots. Turn face into the sun at an angle (so the sunlight goes in the sides of your eyes, not looking directly at the sun). Then thank God for the sun and for Jesus the Light of the World.

(5) Find friends who are light-dependent enough to be willing to venture outside in the cold morning from time to time. They don’t have to be best friends. All you need to have in common is a passion for sunlight : ) It’s nice to have an accountability partner.

(6)After the morning light therapy, move on to regular morning activities. Schoolwork if you homeschool; otherwise errands, housework, etc.

(7) Have a plan for every single afternoon. Write it on the calendar and stick to it. The morning’s goal is sunlight and schoolwork/errands. The afternoon’s goal is avoiding the aimlessness and then depression that comes with the dark afternoons. One afternoon activity may be dissecting a pumpkin, roasting the seeds and baking pumpkin muffins. Invite friends to join the pumpkin fest if you’re up for it, have some apple cider and throw in a dash of alcohol if you’re not pregnant. We also enjoy hosting summer-themed afternoon playdates like “the Islands” where the kids wear leis and sip drinks with umbrella straws and we listen to Jimmy Buffet. Another afternoon, visit friends at their house. One afternoon every single week can be a library mission. Plan in an afternoon of playing in the snow and making hot cocoa with candy canes afterward, and do it. Plan in an afternoon of reading themed books together then making a related craft, and do it. If Dad’s getting home late, trash the kitchen by crafting or baking gifts for friends, deliver the gifts, and then go to McDonalds for Happy Meals for dinner.

(8) Keep a regular bedtime and a regular morning waketime and avoid naps (unless pregnant). Keeping days and nights organized is crucial for my mood. Maybe Queen B our resident doctor can elaborate more on why.

(9) Don’t go wild eating carbs. Seasonal Affective Disorder produces cravings for carbs, but if I stay on track nutritionally (especially by eating large salads once or twice a day) and continue taking vitamin supplements, my mood is steadier.

(10) Let your best friends know that it’s a difficult time of year. In my winter cohort of four last year, one of us was an absolute lover of all things winter. Two of us were Seasonal Affective Disorder gals. The fourth is a saint. We stuck together with regular playdates, inside and outside, checking up on one another, and willing to throw normalcy to the wind to help each other through the season. We hiked through knee-deep snow to the winter-lover’s house and ordered pizzas on the third day of being totally snowed in. We wore four layers and sat outside together on February mornings. Our children missed naps and we had pumpkin muffins for many a meal together under bright fluorescent lights. It was my family’s best winter yet, by far.

May God bless us all in every season! And consider this an open invitation to email me if, come January, you’re sitting around eating frosted brownies and crying while your children watch TV all day. We’re in this together!

  • NY Mama

    Despite a good diet and good vitamins, I have been diagnosed with vitamin D deficiency. My doctors tell me that everyone “up here”–meaning upstate NY–needs more vitamin D. Get a blood test and find out the number (aim for the high 30s/mid 40s). This WSJ article (12/1/09) about different therapies for SAD, including vitamin D, helped me take this deficiency issue more seriously: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703300504574567881192085174.html

  • JMB

    I find that if I exercise outside every single day I can keep the blues at bay. As every runner knows, the trick to the cold is to be dressed properly. I discovered that socks were more important than what type of running shoes I owned. When you consistently go outside, you notice in February (I live in NJ) that the buds are forming on the trees and you realize that spring is a few weeks away. You are also much more sensitive to the changes in light. I think it also helps to have enough time (at least an hour) to exercise every day. In the warmer months I go out in the am. In the winter I will exercise after lunch, usually at peak sun or shortly thereafter. When my children were at home during the day, I would hire a sitter so I could go out and run/walk during the afternoon.

    • Anonymous

      So well said, JMB! I love how exercise brings that awareness of the seasonal change and hope of springtime. Even in the early morning darkness when I run, I notice the January and February days lengthening and the winter winding up. Unfortunately that hope and awareness isn’t quite enough to get over wall of depression–it’s not simply a mind over matter issue with SAD–but it does help so much if Vitamin D and sunlight are adequate too.

      • JMB

        Why not try to run in the afternoon instead of the morning in the winter months and see what happens? Depression runs in my genes and believe me, when I factor out PMS, I am in a much better state now that I go outside and get sunshine and fresh air than I was when I was holed up in an office all day long. Those were gloomy times.

  • Elizabeth M

    My husband realized a couple years ago that he suffers from SAD too. If the sunlight in the cold isn’t enough, or you find you can’t always get it, there are lights you can get. He has a “SunTouch plus” Nature light — although it didn’t cost this much a few years ago. It makes a huge difference for him. We’re in NJ too and some gray winter days go on.nnhttp://www.amazon.com/NatureBright-SunTouch-Plus-Light-Therapy/dp/B000JO9440nn

    • Anonymous

      Elizabeth, I love my light box too… I used it a lot as a law student in South Bend, the land of the black permacloud, while I was sitting and studying. But try as I might, since having kids, I haven’t found the time to sit for half an hour early enough in the day to make the light box work (because it has to be daytime light therapy with the light box–night is too late to use it.) Does your husband use his at work? I figure one day when we have enough space, I’ll put my elliptical machine in a separate room and install my light box on the wall at the perfect angle to shine into the sides of my eyes while I’m exercising. Talk about therapy! Yes!!

      • Elizabeth M

        My husband is a freelance writer, so he keeps his light box on his desk next to his computer. It takes some getting used to for him to adjust to the light now that he’s started using it again. But he can at least be checking email or researching.nnWe’ve noticed some of the same difficulties in our son (who also has Asperger’s syndrome) and we’re trying to work it into his day as well. Last year, we set it up on the dining room table so he got some during breakfast before going to school.

  • B-mama

    JM, you handle this topic with honesty, grace, and your usual good humor (which I so enjoy). I heartily laughed through your last paragraph’s descriptions of your winter survival with friends. “Our children missed naps and we had pumpkin muffins for many a meal together under bright fluorescent lights.” LOL You are a hoot!! I love that you can be real with yourself about this and address it accordingly… Thanks so much for being willing to share for the benefit of others!

  • Anonymous

    This is a great post with a lot of helpful tips. I’m wondering how much of SAD is related to where we grew up and where we are living now. I struggled with SAD when we were living in Michigan (extremely long winter and very gray) but now that I’m in Jersey I’m fine. I bet a change in climate from what we were exposed to when we were young plays a big part. Anyone out there struggle with this while living in the climate of their youth?

  • Mary Alice

    Growing up in the Northeast, my family went skiing most weekends, and I found that time out of doors in nature, sunshine and exercise was a great part of our winter routine. I once traded off babysitting with a friend so that we could ski during the week with little children, and we both agree that it got us through an otherwise very tough winter (she had 3 under 3, I had 4). nnOur house gets a lot of natural light, which I love, but I find that I have to run around in the late afternoon now turning on lights, I just get too sleepy if the house is dark, and I need to get more overhead lighting installed for the days when natural light is not available. nnOn winter evenings, a fire really helps me to enjoy the time indoors, I love to read to the children by the fire. Ours is gas, which is not the same, but it makes it easy to use it often.nnMy mother encourages long, cozy afternoon “play” baths for the kids on tough winter afternoons, you might try adding this in to your afternoon plans on days when you cannot get out, the bathroom usually has good lighting and my kids can play in there for a long time with playmobil boats, it is better than the TV option for when you are not really up for an involved craft. I sometimes sit in there and read, to them or by myself, while they play, I can keep half an eye on the splashing and sneak in some semi-personal time.nnIn general, I have learned that I must have a good novel in my life to help combat depression, I need a place to escape to, something to look forward to after the kids are in bed, since my husband is often working late hours.nnSAD and England are probably a bad combo, so good for you for honing so many honest, natural strategies.n

    • Anonymous

      MaryAlice, I forgot about the long baths to get through long winter afternoons, you’ve had that good advice for years and it’s so true! Thanks for the reminder.nnAnd such a wise point about having a good novel at all times. I’ve been watching some TV in the evenings (and I’ve never been a TV watcher) to have something to look forward to and to escape to, because my husband is working a lot and we don’t have many friends here in Cambridge. A novel is just the ticket! I couldn’t bring books when we left home in March (except 2 spiritual reading books) because of limited packing space, and I’m just now realizing what a hole there has been. And replacing books with evening TV is the pits. To the adult section of the library we shall go… thanks MaryAlice!

  • Helen

    I too suffer from SAD. I use my light box religiously once daylight savings time ends and try very hard to exercise every day. This year I am also trying an antidepressant, Wellbutrin, which has been very successful in Preventing SAD for a large number of test subjects. See this article for details: http://www.cnn.com/HEALTH/library/DI/00069.htmlnn84% is a pretty encouraging stat and I realize the study is funded by the drug company (72% of the placebo subjects also reported feeling less depressed), but I figure I have nothing to lose at this point. It seems to have gotten worse the last few winters (peri-menopause, maybe – I’m 46). I started taking it about a month ago and I’m hopeful that maybe I can head this off at the pass this year. I certainly have a lot more energy this fall, and I’ve lost the 5 stubborn pounds I couldn’t lose until now (mild weight loss is a side effect).nnUnfortunately, this runs in families, my 19-year old daughter has it as well :-(. We’re trying a dawn-simulator alarm clock/light box for her this year (she’s away at college). nnWhen I’m feeling my worst (in January), I just look at this as my cross to bear and offer it up for the souls in purgatory :-). And remember that spring is only 6 weeks away.

    • Anonymous

      Helen, if you get this response, could you either email me directly (jurismater@gmail.com) or elaborate on offering up depression for souls in purgatory? I’ve found that, when I’m depressed beyond a certain point (January/February), I don’t really have the life in me to offer anything up or do any valuable intercession at all. That’s the hardest–it feels like the mood equivalent of a heart rate flatlining–there’s just nothing there. Do you know what I mean, or does anyone? It’s not as if I’m struggling back and forth with something, it’s just kind of a void. I’d love to be able to offer up really difficult mood struggles for something good spiritually, if anyone has advice on how they do that. Do you just say “I offer this up”?

  • Lav16

    Thanks for this post, which I am now forwarding to a college friend and her aunt, who also have “SAD”. When my friend first told me about it when she suspected I might have it, I brushed it off as “not a real thing”…. (much like I brushed off my son’s Sensory Integration Disorder,haha joke’s on me). Initially my friend and I dealt with ours by going to college in Southern California, where it is sunny twelve months a year, LOL. But winter breaks were long and rough. I actually think in my case motherhood helped instead of hurt because in trying to make things fun for my son I became more in tune with the “rhythm of the seasons”…suddenly there were monthly activities to look forward to instead of just “summer vs. not summer” :) But for anyone who’s interested, my friend who deals with the condition did mention to me there is a light that is sold specifically for this. A doctor or therapist might prescribe a certain amount of time each day under the lights. For my part I am going to attempt exercising outside. Which will be tough since I am normally a “fair weather” runner (read: it must be over 70 degrees and sunny). I’m of the opinion it goes beyond vitamin defficiency since I definitely do NOT shy away from dairy and vit D yet still get really sluggish and depressed in winter. But like JM said even if we don’t feel like it at the time, I’ve noticed that forcing myself to spend just a few lingering minutes outside each day makes the difference. Something about that natural sunlight that just can’t be replicated.

  • Mrs C

    Great post JM. I struggle with this too. You have inspired me – I am going to buy a light box and start exercising again.

  • E.M. McCauley

    Child of the tropics that I am, I don’t think anywhere on the continental US would suit me (except perhaps the latitudes btwn Miami and Keywest) during these fall and winter months. Know that I am with you in spirit, JM, and can’t wait to catch up soon on your adventures through Europe and England. Miss you and the family. Blessings to all. n


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