Seasonal Affective Disorder – My Symptoms

After my recent diagnosis of SAD, I wanted to write a couple of posts on my symptoms and things I’ve found helpful. I hope to help raise awareness of how SAD impacts on daily life, and hope that someone else may find this helpful if they also suffer/ suspect they suffer. Obviously, everyone is different and my experiences don’t speak for everyone, but I hope they’ll give some insight into what it’s like.

My Symptoms:

  • Low mood – This kind of goes without saying for any type of depression. I feel fairly miserable much of the time, and on particularly bad days, I cry a lot for absolutely no reason other than how terrible I feel. I have all the usual negative thoughts about myself, the world, and my future associated with any depressive episode.
  • Feel bad about myself/ very low self-esteem – Again, this kind of goes without saying for any kind of depression, though I do feel particularly terrible about myself at this time of year (even more so than usual).
  • Irritability/ anger attacks – This is unfortunately a huge one for me. Occasionally I explode at family members without meaning to, and I’ve broken a couple of my own belongings in the past due to anger issues. I’m probably not particularly pleasant to be around when my SAD is particularly bad, and swearing at inanimate objects becomes one of my favourite pastimes during the darker months! I’m hoping to find healthier ways to cope with my anger because I really don’t want to have anger issues for the rest of my life.
Image result for parental advisory
  • Struggling to get out of bed in the morning – This is the bane of my life (and my boyfriend’s when I stay over at his flat) during the autumn/ winter. It can often take me an hour or more to get out of bed if I don’t have to be somewhere urgently, particularly if the weather is bad. I am affectionately called “grumpy” by my boyfriend in the mornings. I have no idea whether this is unusual or not, but SAD seems to have given me the superpower of telling what the weather is like when I wake up in the morning without even opening the curtains. Nine times of ten, I can correctly guess whether it’s sunny, overcast, or raining outside.
  • Low energy most of time – It can be a struggle to find the energy even to do relatively simple tasks, like tidying or doing the laundry, particularly if the weather is bad.
  • Afternoon slump in mood – Most days, I have a distinct dip in my mood between about 3pm and 5pm, depending on what time sunset is. My mood basically just does this all of a sudden:

I’ve read that a lot of people who suffer from depression feel worst in the morning, but this has never been my experience. I can certainly wake up feeling absolutely dreadful, but I always feel at my worst later in the day (pretty much from around or a little while before sunset, often feeling progressively worse as it gets later into the evening/ night). I’ve wondered if this is part of what’s allowed me to be so high-functioning even when my depression was severe. I was still able to get out of bed, get dressed and go to university/ work, so I must have been absolutely fine, right?

  • Memory/ cognitive problems (“brain fog”) – Of all the symptoms I get, this is definitely one of the most disconcerting. I struggle to think as clearly as I would if it were spring or summer, and writing assignments for uni, or even writing half decent blog posts on here, becomes a lot more difficult. I seem to find it a lot more difficult to learn things and to retain information. My memory and ability to concentrate absolutely goes to pieces. (At my lowest point with depression, I couldn’t read more than a paragraph of text because I couldn’t concentrate and it was as if my brain just couldn’t process/ take in what I was actually reading). I also struggle to think clearly at times and often struggle to think of the right word/s to use in a conversation or when writing something such as an assignment for uni or a blog post. I worry that I annoy my boyfriend, my family members, and my one irl friend because they will have to remind me of things/ say things multiple times because I’ve forgotten. I worry that they think I’m just not listening and that they get annoyed over it. I am, it’s just that my memory is practically non-existent. I’m constantly walking into a room and forgetting what I went in for, or forgetting what I was going to do next. Whenever I remember a task I need to get done in the near future, I try to make a note of it on my phone so that I will remember it later. I get really concerned about the memory/ cognitive issues at times. If this is how bad things are when I’m 25, what is it going to be like if I live into my 80s or even 90s? I used to think I was gradually becoming less intelligent, because that’s what it feels like, but then I always seem to improve again in the spring. I recently learned that there’s actually a name for this phenomenon – “pseudodementia”. I’m trying not to beat myself up so much with things (for example, if it’s taking me a lot longer to master a song/ technique on the drums than I thought it would), but it’s often a lot easier said than done. Just knowing that this state has a name and that it’s common in people going through depressive episodes does help a bit. I’m now less inclined to blame myself/ feel worthless for this.
Rodin's Thinker
Me trying to remember what I came upstairs for
“Rodin’s Thinker” by steven n fettig is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
  • Increased appetite – If you’re been reading this blog for a while now, you’ll probably already know how much I love food. But I the autumn/ winter, things get a bit ridiculous at times and I comfort eat a lot. I try to exercise regularly to prevent myself from gaining weight, but I still do sometimes. I find that I particularly crave starchy foods like pasta, or sweet foods like biscuits and chocolate. I try to always have hot chocolate which I reserve for drinking on days where I’m really struggling with depression (probably not great for my waistline but I definitely advocate it for mental health!) Also, this is perhaps quite childish, but I still buy myself an advent calendar every year, purely because it’s great motivation for getting out of bed on dark, cold and miserable December mornings. I swear I’m basically half toddler.

Adult Raven: Come on Raven, I know it looks miserable outside but we need to get up and get things done.

Toddler Raven: Noooo! I feel tired and awful! I just want to lie here all day.

Adult Raven: But lying here all day isn’t going to do us any good. And we need to at least TRY and get things done. I’ll tell you what – you can have a piece of chocolate if you get up and get on with things!

Toddler Raven: Oh, okaaay then!

  • Increased anxiety – I’m sure many people who suffer from both anxiety and depression also experience this. My SA gets even worse than usual at this time of year. I used to get really down about this and think that I had relapsed massively with my anxiety, but I do improve again in the spring/ summer, and I used to be A LOT worse with this during the darker months. I don’t imagine Christmas shopping is particularly pleasant for anyone, but it can feel horrendous at times for me, with crowds of people. I used to be so bad with this that I’d always go Christmas shopping with my sisters and just follow them around like a lost puppy the entire time, which was probably quite annoying. I remember on one occasion, years ago, when I was particularly depressed, I was following my youngest sister around and a Christmas song by Owl City was playing. She found the song quite funny/ sweet, and asked me how it was possible that I couldn’t be happy around Christmas time. She’s since completed a degree in psychology, so she probably gets it now, but I remember feeling quite alienated at the time, wishing that I could be as happy about a light-hearted song as she was. Nowadays, I’ve learned to just go Christmas shopping only when I’m feeling okay, and while I’m still more anxious than usual, I still cope perfectly fine by myself, and I haven’t had any panic attacks in shops for ages.
  • Don’t want to socialise as much  – As you might imagine, this is closely tied to the increased anxiety. It just feels like too much at times. Given that there is a lot of pressure to be social over the holidays, I have to try to pace myself. I’ll go off for a short break from social interaction after a while, if I can.
  • Intrusive thoughts – I get a lot of worrying and highly distressing thoughts/ images about bad things happening to people/ animals I love. I get this sometimes when I haven’t been sleeping well over the summer, but it’s always worst in the late autumn/ winter. This maybe sounds stupid/ pathetic to people who aren’t huge animal lovers like I am, but a lot of these thoughts concern terrible things happening to my dog (whose welfare I am 100% responsible for). These are perhaps somewhat justified, given that one of his favourite hobbies when I first got him was trying to find novel ways to kill himself. I partly mentioned that in a much earlier blog post, but in addition to what’s on there, he also:
  1. Was left alone in the house on the first Christmas Eve after we got him, for a couple of hours, while my dad treated my siblings and I to breakfast. We’d been careful to put any presents from family/ friends that might be edible in another room, but Finn managed to open two doors (one of which was barricaded), get into the other room, get onto the table, and then proceeded to help himself to a life threatening amount of dark chocolate. It also had macademia nuts (which are also highly toxic to dogs) through it so he really couldn’t have picked a worse combination of things to eat. Bonus points! Needless to say, I was in a bit of a state when we came home and discovered that all of this had happened. I had actually fainted that morning after banging my knee against my sister’s car door (I faint easily in response to sudden pain at times, and presumably it was the combination of that and being hungry for breakfast) and felt like I just needed to relax. I bundled myself, Finn, and my two youngest siblings into my car, and rushed him straight to the vet. Thankfully (not so much for my sister, who was sat beside him in the back at the time) my dog threw up a couple of times on the way there (presumably at least partly due to my driving!), and the vet was able to give him an emetic shortly after we arrived. I’m massively relieved that he doesn’t seem to have suffered any long-term effects from it.
  2. Liked to try and slip his harness and run out into the road at traffic lights when we first got him. Thankfully he’s calmed down a lot and is far better near main roads now.
  3. Has gotten into cupboards a fair few times (he can open doors easily, and apparently now even knows how to open fire doors!) and has gotten into chocolate a couple more times because he opens the doors to family members’ rooms, goes in, and helps himself to any food he finds in there. (Family members still sometimes leave food lying despite my pleading with them not to, which is understandable, because my dog’s behaviour around this can be a bit of a nightmare. FYI, I have tried just about everything to train him out of this and out of his bin-raiding habit (bearing in mind that I covered a lot on animal behaviour in my undergraduate degree and have read quite a lot on positive reinforcement dog training), but unfortunately it seems to be impossible to train it out of him – presumably because he was a stray and because the behaviour itself is so rewarding). Thankfully, both of those times, it was only a very small amount of chocolate.

Slightly worried I’m being judged for being a terrible dog owner right now but yeah…I love him to pieces but he’s definitely been a handful!

So yeah…perhaps those thoughts are somewhat justified, but they are still quite distressing. I also occasionally have quite strange thoughts like if I think of something bad happening to a loved one when I take a step/ yawn/ swallow/ blink, etc, it may happen. I am aware that these are completely illogical and I wouldn’t say this a huge issue for me, but it’s still distressing when it does happen.

  • Reduced libido/ sexual functioning – I don’t remember having this one as a teenager but then again, that’s probably because I was…A TEENAGER. This one’s been bothering me since I entered my 20s. I thought it was just a side effect of citalopram (which I took for a few weeks around my 21st birthday) at first, but it seems to happen every autumn/ winter now. It would have been nice if it had been the other way around – it would almost have been good to have this side effect in my teenage years, but now I just worry about it causing problems in my relationship in the long-term. My boyfriend suffers from depression too so he’s really understanding, but still… This, the low energy and the memory problems just make me feel like I’m getting old already.
  • Impaired ability to cope with stress – This is another huge one for me. Even relatively minor things – things that would be only mildly stressful during the spring/ summer – can feel like huge, insurmountable problems. SAD is good at making molehills seem like mountains. Much of the time, I have to avoid thinking about the future too much because it all just feels so overwhelming and hopeless. My ability to cope with stress is greatly reduced, and this is probably why university has been so horrendous for me at times (given that the times when I feel worse are exactly when I’ve also been bombarded by assignments left, right and centre). Thankfully, I coped incredibly well during my master’s (at least until now). I’m not sure if I just had a particularly good year or if regular exercise and frequent positive social interactions helped to keep my mood in a better state than in other years.
Bang Head Here
“Bang Head Here” by Allison Joy is licensed under CC PDM 1.0 
  • Nausea – Possibly a bit of a strange one, but I’ve had this for years now. I used to wonder if I had some kind of food intolerance, but WHAT I eat makes absolutely no difference. There doesn’t seem to be anything physical that could be causing this so I can only assume it’s psychosomatic. It can happen at any time of the day, but it usually happens within a couple of hours after I eat.
  • Oversleeping – This was a huge problem for me in my teenage years, but not so much now. I’d come home from school and just collapse into bed and sleep for 2-3 hours before I could do anything, then go back to bed again for another 7-9 hours of sleep at night. I think my parents assumed I was just being a lazy teenager but I felt absolutely EXHAUSTED all the time despite getting so much sleep. I felt the same way during my first year of university, when my depression was as its worst. If it’s possible to suffer from both SAD and regular depression at the same time, I strongly suspect that’s what happened to me for most of the depressive episode I had from October 2011 – May 2012. That was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before and I desperately hope I never experience again – I don’t think I could survive it again.

Nowadays, I don’t oversleep but I still feel exhausted most of the time. I’ve become a bit of a masochist when it comes to depriving myself of sleep in recent years – it’s the first thing to go if I have a lot on, and I’m trying to be better with this. I notice that I do feel considerably better if I get a good amount of sleep (Who’da thunk it?), though I do still feel tired most of the time in the darker months, particularly if the weather has been dreich (to throw in a Scotticism) for a few days.

In the next post, I’ll cover things that have helped me to manage SAD and my symptoms.

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