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How I Experience Seasonal Affective Disorder With Bipolar Disorder

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It’s the sun’s fault. I curse the sun setting early post-summer! As days get darker and temps cool, I start feeling depressed and my energy is drained. It’s a phenomenon known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and it can be brutal.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression brought on usually by winter and the lack of light in our lives. Those living with bipolar disorder are particularly susceptible to this disorder, according to this National Institutes of Health study from 1984, which was the first to identify SAD. 

“Seasonal affective disorder… is more than just the winter blues,” says the American Psychological Association. “It is a type of depression that lasts for a season, typically the winter months, and goes away during the rest of the year. Symptoms of SAD … include fatigue, pervasively sad mood, loss of interest, sleep difficulty, or excessive sleeping, craving and eating more starches and sweets, weight gain, feelings of hopelessness or despair, and thoughts of suicide.” 

While autumn brings some enjoyable events — like beautiful fall foliage, Halloween, and Thanksgiving — I just feel sad starting around mid-September. I absolutely abhor daylight savings time and “falling back.” The winter on the horizon depresses me in early autumn. 

My seasonal affective disorder arrives early. When September rolls around and the temps start feeling more fall than summer, my happiness generator shuts down. Summer is my favorite season, so when it ends, I feel particularly depressed. September is also my birthday month, and I have never liked birthdays. And — I’m sure a relic of when I was a kid — I associate this time with going back to school.

Cosmopolitan magazine calls it “September Anxiety.”

Dr. Arun Thiyagaraja, medical director at Bupa Health Clinics, told the magazine: “It’s not uncommon for us to suspend our usual routine and habits during the summer months, which can make it harder to adjust back to normality. Because of this, September can be unsettling for some… Much like how we used to feel as children when September saw us going back to school, this period brings a sense of trepidation and naturally we may feel a bit unsettled.”

“Unsettled” is putting it lightly. My body aches in the winter cold. I just want to cry. And sleep. Sleep, glorious sleep.

In the winter, at its worst, it gets dark as early as 4:22 p.m. here in Chicago and all I want to do is go to bed when that happens. But I’m young; I can’t go to bed at 4:30 p.m. So I blankly stare at the TV, usually political talk shows that are about all I can stomach because I like to be happy when I watch my favorite shows or movies. I listlessly watch MSNBC until it hits a suitable time to go to bed. Usually, I go to bed around 8 p.m. in the winter.

However, the past couple of winters I have escaped to Hawaii, where my parents have retired. I know I am super lucky that I have this place of refuge on Maui to ride out the winter. It looks like I’m going for the winter again, leaving at the end of October. I am extremely grateful. It’s not a vacation. I continue to write there for The Mighty, and since my parents are getting up there, I help around the house. I walk the dog, go grocery shopping, cook, drive my parents to doctor appointments, etc.

I have a couple of tips for you if you struggle with seasonal affective disorder. You might benefit from light therapy. Get a lightbox and sit in front of it for 30 minutes around midday, which is when some doctors say it works best. You can journal or color in adult coloring books while you bask in the glow.

Music helps me because it releases dopamine in the brain. The chemical is a jolt of pleasure or a feeling of euphoria. My gift to you this season of SAD is the mix I’m including below. I created it a couple of years ago to combat my seasonal affective disorder, and it’s made up of songs that are all either about happiness or that sound happy. From Lizzo to the Beach Boys to Pharrell Williams, I hope this playlist adds some brightness to your life during the cold, dark months. You can hear the playlist below, or subscribe to it and let the winter doldrums disappear.

Photo by Max Harlynking on Unsplash

Originally published: September 22, 2021
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