By Scott R. Mote, Esq., Executive Director of the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program
It’s that time of year again. Snow is falling, the air is cold, the sun only comes out occasionally, it is already dark by the time you drive home. You feel sluggish and unmotivated. While some of us might feel sad or blue at times because of the dismal weather and lack of daylight, winter affects others in a way that lasts more than a month and leads to depression. Winter seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a recurrent major depression that affects 5% of the population or 14.5 million Americans. It can last up to five months each year.
Be aware of these signs and symptoms of SAD.
Be conscious of what and how often you eat. Many people who have SAD tend to overeat and are not aware that they are doing so. Do you notice that you now eat more snacks and donuts that your employer sets out for its employees? Do you find that you often reach for foods loaded with carbohydrates? Maybe you are going to the vending machine more than you used to. At dinner, you begin to have seconds or thirds, and you are now eating dessert—something you never did. Overeating can cause a vicious cycle, where you start to become ashamed of yourself or embarrassed in front of people because you know you are eating too much, but cannot seem to stop, and then feel disappointed in yourself, which can lead you to overeat again.
To keep from overeating, keep a food journal. You can write down when, how much and what type of food you are eating throughout the day. After a week, look for trends in your eating habits. Are you eating too much in the evening after work, or do you tend to splurge at lunch or breakfast? See if any of these overeating instances occur when you felt stressed, anxious or bad about yourself. This will help you become aware of your habit, and you can take measures to reduce how much you are eating.
Sleeping too much
Experts say that adults should get between seven to nine hours of sleep a night, but when you are battling SAD, you are probably sleeping too much. There are several reasons for this. The sun sets earlier in the winter months, which means it is probably already dark as you make your commute home. Because it is already dark, your body thinks that it is time to sleep. It has been proven that lack of sunlight leads to depression. The less sunlight you see in winter months the more likely you are to have SAD.
If anxiety keeps you up at night, you might tend to try to make up for it during the day by taking long naps. A 20-minute nap might do wonders, but if you nap longer than that, it will disrupt your sleep, which could lead to another night of insomnia.
You could be oversleeping to escape from reality. Your subconscious is telling you that when you wake up, you are going to have to deal with the issues that you have swept to the side. So you might as well sleep so you don’t have to stress or think about it.
Regardless of the cause of your oversleeping, try to get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. This is easier said than done, but try to keep a consistent bedtime and wake time. Avoid caffeine and alcohol close to your bedtime. You can also rearrange your bedroom to make it an environment that makes you feel at ease so that you can sleep better. Exercise regularly, but not too close to bedtime, since that can keep you awake.
When you have SAD and you are plagued with the symptoms explained above, you do not feel like yourself. This makes it difficult to be social and do the things you once enjoyed. You come up with plenty of excuses to refrain from leaving the house. You tell yourself that you are too tired, you feel self-conscious because you ate too much and gained weight, you would rather use that time to sleep, you don’t want to talk to anyone because you feel as if you have nothing positive to say.
Social isolation can worsen your depression, so it is very important that you take charge. If you find yourself overwhelmed, start small. Choose one person to talk to or one place you like to go, schedule it, and follow through. Once you meet this goal, see how you feel, and then make another goal.
If you feel like you have SAD, talk with your doctor about options that can help you feel like yourself again. Your doctor might recommend:
Light therapy: Sitting or working near a light therapy box that gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light.
Talk therapy (psychotherapy): You speak with a therapist about your negative thoughts and behaviors and determine the best ways to cope with SAD and also how to manage stress.
Medication: If your SAD is severe, your doctor might recommend antidepressant medication. This can be helpful if you tend to get SAD every year, since your doctor can prescribe your antidepressant medication before the winter begins.
Mind-body techniques: Yoga, meditation, art or music therapy can help those with SAD.
SAD is a form of depression, and it is a serious illness. If you do not get help, it can lead to other health problems. Seeking help is a sign of strength. You want to be the best you, which means your clients are getting the best you.
If you are unhappy, depressed, suffering from substance abuse, burnout, or stress, and you believe it is affecting your life, the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program can provide CONFIDENTIAL help. For more information, go to ohiolap.org or call (800) 348-4343 or (614) 586-0621.