Falling with the Autumn Leaves – and How to Cushion the Impact

Autumn leaves evoke different things for different people – such as a trip to look at the foliage, a romance that started (or ended) in autumn, or a jigsaw puzzle with a thousand pieces. But for some, the association is to . . . . falling – or panic at the idea of falling. These include people with the winter blues or seasonal affective disorder. (SAD).

The other day I visited Seattle and my host asked the audience who had heard of seasonal affective disorder. Everyone laughed and raised their hands. I guess you would expect that in Seattle, one of the rainiest cities in the country. But I remember a time when my colleagues laughed at me – and the quaint idea that some people actually became depressed because of a lack of light. What a strange notion it seemed back then!

Winter BluesWhen my colleagues and I first suspected there might be a condition we called SAD (and a lesser version, the winter blues), we recruited a group of people who claimed that they felt fine in summer but became gloomy and sluggish each autumn, which worsened as winter deepened. We brought them into our research unit in the summer when they were full of vitality. That lasted for some months. What would happen, one colleague asked if they stayed well all winter long? Wouldn’t I look foolish? Well, part of being a researcher is being willing to risk being wrong – and to learn from it.

But I had nothing to fear. Our recruits had been true in their predictions. In October and November, as the days began to get shorter, their energy and mood began to fall like autumn leaves. Here are the symptoms they reported, which we described in our first report about Seasonal Affective Disorder in 1984 – and they remain the key symptoms of SAD to this day.

Key Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

• Reduced energy
• Difficulty waking up in the morning
• A greater need for sleep
• Increased appetite, especially for sweets and starches
• Weight gain
• Difficulty concentrating
• Fatigue during the day
• Withdrawal from friends and family
• Sadness and depression

I have listed sadness and depression last because they are often late symptoms. The key to proper care for Seasonal Affective Disorder is to catch it early.

8 Tips for preventing your energy level and mood from falling like the autumn leaves

• Put your bedside lamp on a timer programmed to go on half an hour before your planned wake-up time (a dawn simulator is a fancy version of this)
• Don’t linger in bed under the covers
• Get out for an early morning walk as soon as the sun is up
• Put lots of light at the breakfast table or, better still, invest in a therapeutic light box
• Make sure you have a solid exercise program in place
• Avoid high impact carbohydrates, such as pure sugars and white flour.
• Schedule things that you know you will enjoy
• Plan a trip to the south in the depth of winter (which will give you something to look forward to)

For more advice on this topic, you may want to consult my book Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat SAD (Guilford, 2006)

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Wishing you Light and Transcendence,

Norman

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2 Comments

  1. Please sign me up for the newsletter. Thank you!

    - by susy tybl in October, 2011
  2. In 1997, when I was a graduate student (at age 42) I did an internship at a mental health clinic. Two psychologists were discussing a client at staffing who came in very depressed in January, and then by June was gone, year after year. I mentioned S.A.D., having self-diagnosed and read all the research I could get my hands on, and they laughed at me! I was absolutely disgusted that a group of mental health professionals would be so ignorant of something that had been so well-researched. Thank you and your colleagues for saving my life, literally!

    - by Terry Major-Holliday in October, 2015