Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Where art thou summer? : Surviving the winter semester with Seasonal Affective Disorder

This piece was written for a newsletter for the Memorial University student group MUN Minds and is reproduced here on my blog.

I live on a rock in the frigid North Atlantic Ocean. If you’re currently attending Memorial University and reading this newsletter, so do you. Having lived most of my life in Newfoundland and Labrador, you get comfortable with winter. You may even learn to embrace it. But for some of us, the symptoms of our seasonal affective disorder are a daunting, yearly, inevitable reality.

I’m a current graduate student in my ninth year of post-secondary education. I’m currently working on my Master of Gender Studies degree. I also have anxiety-depression. I deliberately hyphenate those words because, for me, they are so linked and intertwined they are one illness. My anxiety is the more prevalent, manifest part of my situation, and the depression is the latent part. But it’s still there. I just don’t seem or act much like a depressed person, in the way many people imagine.

Most of us have probably experienced something that feels like the “winter blues.” The days get shorter, the darkness comes early, and it is perpetually cold. We may feel restricted by the snow and deprived of the sun. Seasonal affective disorder, as I understand it, is a subtype of major depression.

Maybe you will only experience symptoms related to your seasonal depression, or maybe you experience elements of depression year-round that are exacerbated with the seasonal change. This is the case for me.

In hindsight, I recall growing up and dreading the winter with a fear bordering on superstition. While I was diagnosed with anxiety-depression at a very young age, no one really talked to me about how I may experience my symptoms differently at different times. Maybe, in this province, we come to accept or expect a certain amount of winter sadness and lethargy. Looking back now, I can see that many of my mood issues were aggravated in the winter, especially starting in January. I always disliked January – the hype of Christmas is over and winter is getting into full swing. Winter 2014, a.k.a the Neverending Story, was a particularly harsh one. Growing plants is an example of something that makes me happy. Here’s how my plants were doing last winter:

I don't think this is how photosynthesis works.
I felt so trapped, as though I was suffocating in the snow. I started plotting all the places I could move away to in order to never see snow again. I know a lot of people felt this way.

It’s important to note, though, that not all seasonal affective disorders are winter-based, and some people may experience the symptoms of seasonal depression in the summer.

So, being a long-time student and seasonally affected, how did I handle winter semesters? It was often tough, especially in my undergrad. Had I been fully cognizant of my seasonal issues when I first started university, I may have planned better supports – perhaps a lighter course load in the winters, or a more dedicated plan to attend counselling.

Alas, I suffered through many challenging winter semesters with little to no extra empathy for myself. I was late for so many morning classes because I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Too cold, too tired. And I didn’t tell anyone who I should have, such as, perhaps, some professors. Again, I’m in year nine of university now. That’s a lot of winter semesters.

By contrast, I often took summer courses – while working full-time – and found myself to be so much more capable.

We have to get to know our own bodies and minds and understand how to support ourselves through different periods.

I say bodies because, regardless of the emphasis on “minds” in mental health, I will emphatically argue the interconnectedness between mind and body and how integral it is to look at how your body (as a result of your brain) is coping. One of the real challenges of my seasonal affective disorder is sleepiness. I am so tired! Of course, because one of the aspects of my anxiety is a fear of failure and not accomplishing things, I’m pretty much always tired because I’m always trying to juggle a thousand things. Slowing down may not be an option – some people with anxiety-depression are go-go-go because they are terrified of stopping.

That’s what makes it hard to understand symptoms versus causes. Is my depression making me exhausted? Am I exhausted because I should be because I’ve taken on too much to alleviate my anxiety? I also have b12 and iron deficiencies, the symptoms of which can include fatigue and low mood. GREAT. THANKS BODY.

This is all a way of saying that, while it can be so hard to understand which aspect of our mind/body is causing each symptom, we can still find ways to cope with the symptoms while pursuing our studies in non-ideal seasons. Here are some ideas if you think you’re coping with seasonal affective:

Make sleep a big priority. It’s amazing what a good night of sleep can do. Many students underestimate this – we have papers to write, exams to study for, no time to sleep! I was like this. I thought, “sleep is for the weak” and all the other foolishness we tell ourselves to bolster our sleep-deprived bravado.

Once I started making sleep a priority – more important than getting work done or finishing reading that last article – my life improved a lot. When we deprive ourselves of sleep we can’t possibly be as well equipped to cope with the other challenges we may face while awake. If insomnia is an element of your depression, talk to a qualified professional about different options.

Exercise is a wonderful anti-depressant. Move your body when you can. It won’t simply cure all your problems, but it definitely helps.

Try to get fresh air and sunlight when you can. I love the outdoors, and during the winter I tend to retreat to my burrow and wait for it to be over, like a badger in a bomb shelter. This is not good! Whether it be taking a walk or trying to find winter activities to enjoy, you can train your brain to feel less apprehensive. This isn’t to say that getting over mental illness is as simple as being positive – um, no. But, for me, working on thinking of things I may enjoy about the winter has been therapeutic. You can also look into light therapy lamps and see if that might work for you.

As a student, strategize options to plan your courses around your better seasons. School is important, but make time for activities that make you really happy and excited, too. During a winter depression is NOT the time to cut back on things that give you joy. Also, go to the Counselling Centre. They are great.

Remember, summer will come back. I know last April when we had another snowstorm and I had to shovel out my unplowed cul-de-sac it didn’t feel like it ever would, but it came back.

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