World Mental Health Day - Seasonal Affective Disorder

 I always end up doing some sort of body modification when the nights begin to draw in. 

Whether it's a piercing, a tattoo, a strange hair colour or even shaving all of my hair off. It all seems to happen around September/October time. The reason for this is my mood, and how low it tends to get around this time in particular. I start to feel like my life has become stagnant and like nothing is changing in the way that I would want it to. So, in the way a lot of people do, I combat that feeling of a loss of control by taking control of the way I look. If I can change that in some drastic, irreversible way I feel much more at peace in my own body.

The fact that it's always around this time of the year has me wondering about whether I am suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Being totally honest, I had always thought of it as a bullshit diagnosis.

The initials spell out SAD for God's sake.

 Not only that, but I assumed that everyone felt miserable around this time of year since I've felt this way for years and years now. It's cold, wet, grey, and miserable. You get blips of happiness, like Halloween and Christmas but for the most part, it's a crappy time of year. Even New Year's Eve can be miserable in a lot of circumstances.

That perception kind of changed with me using Social Media more and more often, especially with having more and more American friends. I could be generalising, but I feel like that idyllic, colourful, cosy autumn is much more of an American image than a British one. I do think changing leaves and conkers and warm jumpers, but I mostly think about rain and freezing weather and darkness. This season just doesn't fill my heart in that way, I spend Autumn and Winter craving sunlight.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The official NHS website describes Seasonal Affective Disorder as "a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern". In rare cases, it can affect people during the summer months but is more common during autumn/winter. Because of this, some theories are that it's caused by reduced hypothalamus function due to a lack of sunlight.  The hypothalmus is a part of our brain that can affect the production of melatonin (a hormone that makes us tired) and serotonin (a hormone that affects mood, appetite, and sleep). A lack of sunlight can also push our circadian rhythm out of balance, which is our internal clock determining when we wake up and go to sleep. All of these things being out of whack explains why someone affected would feel lethargic, depressed, and prone to overeating.

Do I have it? What can I do about it?

First of all: self-diagnosis is the enemy. I do not advocate for self-diagnosing which is why I've steered away from definitively saying whether I do or do not have SAD. The reason I haven't gone and got diagnosed by a medical professional is that I wasn't sure this was even a real thing, to begin with, but also because there is that fear of a professional actually confirming your fears. I've been pushing it to one side for years now, but as World Mental Health Day falls exactly when these feelings start to creep up on me I feel like it's a well-needed push for me to actually seek professional help for this.

I can't just turn around and say I'll go and get diagnosed tomorrow, it's going to take some mental work drumming up the courage so I want to be honest with you all. These things don't just flip overnight, becoming mentally healthy is a real process that takes willpower and patience.

Once you are diagnosed by a professional, in some cases medication can be an effective treatment. For others talking therapies, cognitive behavioral therapy, or practising Mindfulness techniques can be beneficial. For others, it's lifestyle changes like tracking how much you eat, forcing yourself to exercise or go for walks, and putting yourself in situations where you can absorb more sunlight.

Some people also have special light boxes or lamps they use that mimic natural sunlight, and another thing you can do is putting filters on your phone, tablet, or computer screens to make the light softer. Our electronic devices tend to have screens that put out a blue light which also throws out circadian rhythm off balance and can keep us up at night if we are looking at screens for too long. Some people even adopt a rule of putting screens away after a certain time of the night which is another effective way of managing SAD or even insomnia.

Lastly, something important to remember is that you're not the only person feeling this way. If you were, this feeling wouldn't have a name. It's a bullshit suggestion, and it's much much harder than it sounds, but there is nothing more frightening than the ugly, bottomless spiral of "I feel awful" to "Why doesn't anyone else feel awful" to "No one understands how I feel" to "I'm broken and I can't be fixed" and round and round again until you feel like you can't escape. On this World Mental Health Day, I'd like to try and be an escape route out of that spiral and into a much more promising headspace.

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