S.A.D. about the days getting shorter? Here’s why you don’t need to be

Around this time of year, the nights start to get darker and at the end of October the clocks go back, meaning that because of the shorter days we see less daylight – this can often be a trigger for sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder…

The theory goes that fewer daylight hours can cause us to have low mood and even suffer depression as a result – this is commonly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short. Surely the most unhelpful name for a condition ever invented!

There seems to be a commonly held belief that SAD is real and it is because of changes in our brain due to reduced daylight. I guess this sounds plausible doesn’t it – after all serotonin levels are thought to be depleted in SAD sufferers during the winter and melatonin production is linked to exposure to sunlight.

The trouble is that there is loads of research ( e.g. Megan Traffanstedt and Dr. LoBello, in collaboration with Dr. Sheila Mehta) which suggests that SAD doesn’t actually exist. Other studies in Norway (The Tromsø Study) support this research, as data shows that there is not a higher rate of SAD in Norway, despite the severely shortened daylight during Norway’s winter.

There are also numerous unhelpful and unscientific SAD-related articles available online to anyone who looks – serving any confirmation bias well. Plus, there’s also a slew of pseudoscience-orientated videos supposedly explaining how SAD works – many rely on the old and discredited brain chemistry model, and most are trying to sell you a light box device to ‘cure’ SAD or some sort of supplement. The video below is a great example of information presented as fact, which the average person who’s suffering from depression or low mood might watch and buy into the idea that they too must be suffering from SAD.

I’m not saying that people’s feelings aren’t real, but the cause of low mood and depression isn’t down to reduced sunlight. However, if you believe that this is the case, it makes it very difficult for you to change how you feel. So if it’s not reduced sunlight, then why do people feel unhappy?

One of my clients firmly believed that SAD existed and that it made him depressed and unhappy. I asked him if he always felt this way, at first he answered yes, but when I asked him if there had been any times in the last week when he had felt OK he said: “Oh yes, Wednesday wasn’t so bad…”

The thing is Wednesday had been really dull and cold, so I asked him to explain what happened on Wednesday. He said: “Well I was feeling really miserable and unhappy, but I got a call from a friend who suggested that we should go out on Friday for dinner and that cheered me up!”

So let’s think about that for a minute. My client was sitting in his room feeling unhappy and then he spoke to a friend and he felt better. He was still in the same room, the weather and the sunlight hadn’t changed, but he felt better – so what was different?

The answer is: he was thinking differently. Nothing else had changed except his thoughts. Instead of brooding about how the dull miserable weather was making him unhappy and causing his Seasonal Affective Disorder – he was thinking nice happy thoughts about going out with his friend on Friday. He changed his mindset.

My client now understands that if he controls his thoughts and beliefs about himself, he can control how he feels. He no longer has the unhelpful belief that sunlight or darker days control his moods and, as a result, he feels more in control and more empowered. He’s able to manage his mental health effectively and isn’t causing his Seasonal Affective Disorder anymore.

The great news is that, when we carefully examine our unhelpful beliefs and look for real evidence to support or deny them, it affects other areas of our life in a positive way as well. When we create helpful beliefs based on evidence, we no longer think that life is happening to us… we have the skills and resources to be in control – we feel more confident and happy.

A great example of this is the case of St Andrews, Scotland-based Mandy Martin, who suffered from SAD for a number of years. She recalls how it impacted on her life: “When I was suffering from SAD my mood would usually start to dip around September and I would start to dread the rapidly approaching longer nights. Although we tend to focus on how early it gets dark I think the biggest struggle for me was getting up in the dark mornings.

“When my alarm would go off I would often actually feel like crying at the thought of getting up because I would feel so tired, it would take an enormous amount of effort just to get out of bed and to be honest, if it wasn’t for the fact that I had to see to my boys I think there would have been days when I would have just stayed in bed. I didn’t just feel tired and down during the winter months, I also used to feel quite muddled and really struggled to concentrate.”

“I remember one winter I had gone back to college and I would be driving there in the dark (but gradually lightening) morning and really struggling to keep my eyes open, feeling as though someone had drugged me. I was driving to and from college in the dark and inside all day and I truly believed that was the reason for all my problems.”

“My whole lifestyle changed in the darker months as I would spend more and more time sleeping, I wouldn’t go out much other than for essential tasks. I used to wish I could just hibernate and to a certain extent I did.”

So, as Mandy describes, her lifestyle was different in the winter compared to the summer months, starting with anticipatory anxiety as the nights got longer… then long car journeys in the dark and spending lots of time sleeping when not at work or studying. I don’t think she’d mind me saying that these changes to her energy levels and subsequent mood were as a result of her lifestyle and attitudes to life at this time.

She believed that the lack of sunlight was causing her to be depressed and have less energy – so she went out less, saw her friends rarely, didn’t enjoy all that life has to offer, had fewer self-esteem-boosting experiences and, as she admitted, practically hibernated. She (her mindset, attitude and self-esteem, or lack of) was causing this issue in her life – it wasn’t due to brain chemistry or lack of sunlight.

Mandy continues: “I started The Thrive Programme in January so it was perfect for showing how the weather/dark nights were not the reason for my symptoms, I noticed a change within two to three weeks, certainly by week three I was full of energy and excited about life in a way that I hadn’t been for years, in fact I hadn’t felt excitement like it since I was a child. When you have struggled with something for years and you suddenly realise that you don’t have to suffer any more, that you have the power to change it, it is such an amazing feeling and I was buzzing.”

“Post-Thrive my life and outlook on life has completely changed. The weather/dark nights etc no longer affect my mood. I still feel sleepy when my alarm goes off and it is pitch dark but as soon as I come to I think about two things: 1. If I was that deeply asleep then it means I’ve had a really good rest. 2. I think about all the things I’m going to do in the day ahead and I’m keen to get started.”

“One of the things that I realised post-Thrive Programme was that I was changing my lifestyle in the darker months and I now believe that this was the main contributor to my mood changing. My behaviour and habits changed, the way I viewed the winter months and believed that I couldn’t do certain things was what was in fact causing the problem. Nowadays I do the same things all year around I just have to change my clothes accordingly. I go out running with my running group all year but at this time of year we need to wear head torches and hi viz/reflective gear and a few more layers.”

“I still consider myself a sun worshipper but in the winter I love looking at the starry sky (you don’t see many stars in the summer) and snuggling up with the stove on dark chilly nights. Basically I find something I love about any day of the year because the alternative, to be miserable, is such a waste of time and energy.”

This is The Thrive Programme – the course my client, Mandy and many others have used to cure themselves of unhelpful and life-changing issues such as SAD, phobias, anxiety and depression– in a nutshell. It equips you with the tools to manage your mental health, achieve happiness and train yourself into having a healthy mindset. Mandy describes how it equipped her to beat SAD perfectly.

If you would like to find out more about how The Thrive Programme could help you, check out the various pages on the Thrive Your Life for more information. Or contact me to arrange a FREE Initial Consultation.

This article was written by a fellow Thrive Consultant Garry Higgins along with contributions from Mandy Martin who overcame S.A.D. with The Thrive Programme.