As winter’s icy grip tightens, many people experience more than just the chill in the air. For some, this season brings with it a heavy, pervasive gloom known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (aptly abbreviated as SAD). This mood disorder typically occurs during the darker months when sunlight is scarce and the weather is gloomy, and is characterized by feelings of depression, low energy, and a pervasive sense of hopelessness.
If you find yourself in the clutches of SAD, know that you are definitely not alone. Nearly 5% of the population in the United States experiences SAD, and it’s reported that SAD often lasts for approximately 40% of the year for folks with this diagnosis. In this article, we’ll dive deep into the understanding of these spicy winter blues, from a perspective rooted in Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy. Get ready to uncover potent coping strategies and reclaim your vitality from SAD’s grip.
Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder
Clinically-diagnosed SAD often starts like a slow, creeping shadow as the days shorten and the nights lengthen. Symptoms definitely vary from person to person, but can include:
- Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness
- Fatigue and low energy levels
- Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
- Irritability and an increased need for sleep
- Changes in appetite, particularly cravings for high-carb and sweet foods
- Weight gain
- Social withdrawal
The exact causes of SAD are not fully understood, but it is thought to be linked to a lack of sunlight. Exposure to sunlight is believed to increase the brain’s release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with mood, and decrease melatonin production, a hormone that regulates sleep. It also has been noted that as daylight hours decrease for those who live further from the equator, circadian rhythms are often interrupted as well. All of these factors can lead to a critical imbalance, leading to SAD symptoms and potential clinical diagnosis.
The Internal Family Systems (IFS)- Informed Perspective
In IFS-informed therapy, who you are is seen as a collection of different “parts” of who you are; each with its own unique role and perspective in your life, what’s happening, and how you handle events. When dealing with SAD, it’s essential to recognize the specific parts that may be contributing to what you’re experiencing. It can be tough to begin looking at SAD from this lens if you’ve never done IFS-information therapy before, so let’s meet a potential few you might uncover during the process. Here are a few common “parts” that may show up when exploring SAD:
- ‘The Depressed Part’: This is the part that carries the heavy burden of sadness and hopelessness. It often emerges during the dark months when SAD symptoms are most pronounced.
- ‘The Self-Care Part’: Contrary to the Depressed Part, this one wants to engage in activities that bring joy and alleviate symptoms. It encourages self-care, such as exercise and engaging in hobbies.
- ‘The Avoidant Part’: This part aims to steer clear of emotions associated with depression. It can lead to behaviors like isolation, emotional eating, and procrastination.
Now, these “parts” might sound like characters in your own story or maybe they are entirely new players you’ve yet to meet. It could also be that these “parts” might not be related to your experience of SAD at all! In the world of understanding and managing SAD from an IFS-informed perspective, getting to know these parts can be a game-changer. So, let’s embark on this journey of self-discovery and find out just how crucial these little fellas can be in your battle against SAD. Here are some therapeutic approaches that could help you navigate the intensity of SAD:
Connect with the ‘Depressed Part’
Rather than pushing away or neglecting the feelings of sadness and hopelessness, take a bold step to connect with the ‘Depressed Part’ through compassion and genuine curiosity. Maybe you begin by recognizing its presence with a simple statement like, “I notice that I’m really down right now, and it’s been persisting.” Then, change yourself to venture further by tuning into the physical sensations your body is experiencing, as they might serve as a wealth of information around what is actually happening for you during these slow months. Double challenge yourself by allowing yourself to feel those sensations without hurrying them along.
Engage with the ‘Self-Care Part’
While SAD can make you feel like withdrawing from the world, it’s highly likely that your ‘Self-Care Part’ is there to help you. It could be responsible for you even reading this article! By encouraging actions, particularly self-care related actions, it might be hopeful that you can alleviate those intense symptoms. Engage with this part of yourself by participating in activities that usually bring you joy, even when you don’t feel like it at first.
Address the ‘Avoidant Part’
The ‘Avoidant Part’s’ role is to help you escape uncomfortable emotions, which can be really helpful in the short go. When we use this method over and over again without ever returning to the root of the issue, it can often lead to behaviors that exacerbate SAD. Instead of succumbing to its influence, acknowledge it and gently challenge its avoidance strategies. Ask this part of yourself what it’s trying to protect you from by showing up and helping you avoid those uncomfy emotions. With that information, you then get to decide whether those protections are still necessary or if that pattern is just a relic from your past.
5 Coping Strategies from an IFS-Informed Perspective
SAD can be pretty challenging to navigate, and have intense implications on your life. It’s likely that there’s no one-application remedy for SAD, so using a variety of methods to cope with the symptoms is always your best bet. Here are a few IFS-inspired coping strategies to help ease its grip on your life:
Mindfulness meditation can help you connect with your internal ‘parts’ of who you are. Regular practice can improve self-awareness and your ability to relate to your ‘parts’ with compassion and curiosity. With access to the information that each ‘part’ of yourself carries, your ability to respond to situations effectively can skyrocket.
Light therapy involves sitting in front of a lightbox that mimics natural sunlight. These lights can be found online, in general stores, and/or through a doctor’s prescription, and run anywhere between $20 and $600. The light that is emitted can help balance the melatonin and serotonin levels disrupted by SAD, and these effects have been studied for several decades.
Connect with Nature
I know, you’ve probably heard it a million times, but spending time in nature whenever possible is a huge plus when coping with SAD. Even a short walk in a park can provide your system with much-needed exposure to natural light and fresh air. It can be helpful to create a list of outdoor activities that you enjoy long before SAD shows up, so it’s handy when you need it most.
Maintain a Routine
SAD often disrupts your daily routine in big ways. Fatigue, sleepiness, intensified emotions can all join the mix and cause for daily strife. In coping with SAD, try to maintain a regular schedule, including regular meal times, exercise, and bedtime. A structured routine can help be an anchor for you during darker days.
Seek Professional Support
If you notice the impacts of SAD on your life, don’t hesitate to seek help from a mental health professional. Seeking support to explore your experience, create effective coping strategies/routines, and maintain safety can be life changing and affirming.
As winter’s chill creeps in, it’s essential to remember that you’re not alone in facing Seasonal Affective Disorder. With the right strategies, you can loosen its grasp on your life and feel yourself again. Take the time to understand the ‘parts’ that make up who you are, practice self-compassion, and remember, you don’t have to go it alone. If you’re noticing the effects of SAD and want to make a change, don’t hesitate to reach out. Your journey towards light and vitality begins today, and there’s a community of professionals and support ready to walk with you.