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SAD & those dark Winter nights

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I recently produced an article on Season Affective Disorder (SAD) for a counselling directory (*see below). There were some interesting responses which indicated that SAD may be a little more widespread than one might expect.

The article considered a comparison between SAD and the common cold. Whilst colds and SAD are both winter aliments with debilitating side effects, we actively try to ease the cold symptoms with pills and sprays but seem to be more prepared to just accept the down turn in mood that comes with SAD.

Or at least that is how it appears to be for those who are impacted by SAD.   At this time of year there will be some who actively look forward to winter and are excited by Christmas, log fires and snow.  Others will just about tolerate winter as the unavoidable precursor to spring (and I guess that is where I probably stand – or sit).  And then there always will be those who see themselves as unaffected by changing seasons and completely impervious to any effects of the shortening of daylight hours.

In this note I am concerned with those who think they may be troubled by SAD.  A regular question from those affected is that if SAD is a real complaint or an illness is there a remedy?   The initial response may be a slightly disappointing one.

As with the common cold, the search for an absolute cure appears as a never ending quest. In practice the most successful remedies tend to be more about alleviating the symptoms rather than banishing the condition.

The search for a permanent cure is impacted by the assertion that SAD may be a natural condition rather than something closer to an illness. There is, so the argument goes, a functional reality to being less active in the dark than the light. This is an inbuilt human trait which has tumbled out of our evolutionary story and continues through to impact on our behaviour today. 

Back then (and you can decide just when you want ‘back then’ to be), it is likely that darkness brought danger. If we stayed together huddled around the fire in the cave, hut, tepee, cottage (delete as appropriate) rather than venturing out into the darkness, we were more likely to be able to safely greet the morning light in one piece.

And if that need to hunker down and wait for dawn is entrenched in our DNA then maybe we are pre-programmed to have to just accept and endure this condition we call SAD.  It is certainly a powerful argument.  But even if we accept this, there are some things that we can do to ensure that the time of the long nights is tolerable beyond spending time sitting in front of a sun ray lamp.

We can start by challenging nature rather than just acquiescing. There are some simple contemporary alternatives. A double expresso can be jolly helpful in combatting the yawns at 9.00pm (or completely disastrous dependent upon our relationship with sleep!).  A house flooded with light can also provide a powerful antidote to the external sepulchral darkness.

Challenges to nature do not need to be man-made either as substances or technology.  It is well accepted that the right sort of activity is an effective counter to the blues. A brisk stroll whether through urban streets or country footpaths will lift the mood.

The challenge is more down to finding the determination and will power to go outside when that primeval influence is enticing us to keep warm and stay put. Perhaps that is where friends come in.  If there is an agreement in place to meet up and walk together we are far more likely to brave the elements rather than stay indoors cocooned by the central heating.

There will though be occasions when those friends may not be easy to come by.  Calls go unanswered, emails bounce back and addresses are lost.  Things happen and we can become careless and lose touch with people. But if we have lost old friends perhaps that reinforces the importance of taking action and making new ones. And that sense of action and doing is perhaps what lies at the heart of any effective challenge to SAD.

Some structured therapeutic work may be also helpful including some behavioural work.  As a technique based in a large part on common sense, some may feel that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been overhyped by organisations such as NICE.  I have sympathy with that view. CBT is certainly not a long lasting panacea for all emotional ills.

Nevertheless despite my reservations, CBT can in the right circumstances be a very helpful therapeutic strategy.  I certainly recognise that there are some basic CBT models which can be extremely useful from both a diagnostic and also a forward looking perspective. One of these is what I term the CBT ‘wheel’.

This model looks at the interplay of thoughts, feelings, behaviour and actions. It encourages an understanding of the importance of action in encouraging us to move from a place of stagnation and negativity to somewhere which celebrates the value of doing.  It is a way of bringing into practical focus a favourite adage of mine that nothing changes if nothing changes.

 Action provides a challenge to the status quo. If SAD threatens to hold us back, to imprison us within our homes and has an adverse impact on our emotional well-being, then this inaction is a challenge to be faced.  And a powerful way of reducing the impact of SAD can be by just doing something. useful

But this is where as a counsellor and therapist I face a challenge. I am always concerned not to give advice.  Effective counselling should not be didactic.  It is not about telling individuals what they should do. Most clients endure enough of that from partners, friends and relative. Counselling is about helping individuals to find their own pathway and to write their own story. 

But sometimes, just sometimes perhaps rules are made to be broken…..  So let’s try something.  The next time when SAD starts to wrap on the window pane, frost forms and that yellow smoke beloved of J Alfred Prufrock begins to seep into your very being, let’s do something.  Grab a friend, partner, lover, neighbour or dog and go walking. It does not matter where.  Or with whom. To the shops, pub or even just around the block.  

And if the weather is cold, the rain incessant, the hailstones painful, the snow chilling and the darkness impenetrable it does not matter.  If it is that uncomfortable to be out, then by the time you return to where you started from you will be pleased to be greeted by the warmth, light and comfort of home. As a result SAD (and that accompanying melancholy, gloom and sadness?) may be banished, for a while at least

But what if even this does not work? Or friends do not want to walk, partners do not want to talk and even the dog is refusing to venture outside.  Then let’s go back to that analogy of the common cold.

With a cold comes a sore throat, a cough or a headache.  After a few days those irritating symptoms should ease. But what if they do not?  The recommended response is to go and see a GP – and perhaps the same adage should apply with regard to SAD and those emotional symptoms.

If these SAD symptoms persist or if you cannot find either the will power to get up or the supporter who will go outside with you then perhaps it is time to look for other means of support. Perhaps that can be the occasion to make that first contact with the counsellor or therapist.

We will always be pleased to meet and talk with you. Whatever the therapeutic technique or the counselling strategy, you may find that very first step of actually contacting and then talking with someone who wants to listen, will be a positive and encouraging first step towards dealing with SAD. 

So go for it.  This time enjoy the winter – and remember that light bright, inviting Spring is just around the corner…..!!

(**  Article Reference





Geoff Boutle

added on 1st November 2014

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