In case you’ve been trapped under a snow bank, you know that, lately, New England has been pelted with numerous, horrible snow storms. While others are seeing hints of spring-to-come, in the north it seems like winter is here to stay. I actually find it a bit jarring when I see photos and there’s grass. Real live grass! Basically, up here, it’s still prime real estate for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Around 5% of the population is thought to deal with SAD on a regular basis. Prevalence increases as you head north. The sun sleeps in and goes to bed early. It’s cold. The kind of cold that freezes the inside of your nose and makes you think you will never be warm again. Part of your brain hails back to its hibernating brethren. You pack on the winter poundage and hibernate. Except you can’t, because you’re human and humans tend to have responsibilities that can’t go on hold for several months at a time. Just talking about it is depressing. Take it to a clinical level and it will get you to what it feels like to have SAD.
“What does SAD have to do with bipolar disorder?” you say. Well, it can have a lot to do with BPD, actually. Over 25% of bipolar patients report that their symptoms fluctuate throughout the year. It’s called “seasonal pattern.” Having a seasonal pattern to moods does not necessarily mean someone has seasonal affective disorder. Remember, seasonal affective disorder is it’s own thing among all cross-sections of the general population. It just so happens that people with bipolar disorder are more likely to have symptoms matching those of SAD than the general population. The same thing works in reverse. A diagnosis of SAD is not the same thing as having a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. They are separate things. Having depressive symptoms in the winter but not in the summer does not a diagnosis make. It just so happens that seasonal affective disorder can fit just right into the symptoms that some people with bipolar disorder face.
Seasonal affective disorder and seasonal patterns in bipolar disorder share many traits. The main similarity is depression, especially atypical depression. Instead of a lack of appetite and trouble sleeping, we gain weight and sleep a lot. Plus we have extra social sensitivity, but that’s not really what I’m talking about right now. Like I said before, the natural reaction to seasonal patterns is to prepare for winter by adding on the extra poundage and hibernating as much as possible.
The closer to winter solstice, the worse the depressive symptoms. Thankfully, we’re a couple of months past that so early darkness is less of a problem, but there’s still the cabin fever and the drudge of maneuvering through the snow (hooray for four-wheel drive!).
Those of us with bipolar II actually tend to be more affected by SAD. Depressive episodes are more common than our bipolar I counterparts, which can be exacerbated during the long, winter months. Circadian rhythms can get off-kilter. Since changes is your sleep patterns can affect symptoms, it’s important to stay in a pattern no matter how much sleep seems like the best idea you’ve had.
There are other things you can do to help out if you’re still needing some extra umph to get through the long, long winter. First, get some exercise. I know, I know. That’s what they always say! Well, that’s because it’s true. You don’t need to couch-to-marathon; combine the two most-talked about treatments and get outside and start moving. Sunlight (no matter how cold) offers up vitamin D that can be helpful in fighting depression and flexing your muscles provides them with a breather. I mean that literally. When you exercise, more oxygen moves to your muscles. Light therapy has also been proven effective when sunlight is in short supply, but you do have to make sure to follow the instructions. Then there’s the tried and true option: talk to your doctor about cognitive therapy and the possibility of needing medication.
Hopefully you won’t need the extra help for too long. Spring really should be just around the corner for all of us. Then we can talk about how manic episodes tend to peak in the early spring.