On Healing 9/28/2009: A fall illness with ties to depression

Someone I know well began waking up around 3 a.m. and had difficulty getting back to sleep. He has a history of Seasonal Affective Disorder, which many people begin to experience in late August as the days get shorter, and he suspected this was the first sign.

The sleep disturbance didn’t bother him that much because at least he wasn’t feeling depressed yet. He has a history of clinical depression, too.

But just last week, those symptoms started. Although his mood wasn’t yet depressed (that’s just one of many symptoms for the condition), he was still experiencing a lot of related problems. He was feeling less secure about his thoughts and judgments, more tentative in some social interactions, and feeling an increase in his baseline anxiety. And he said his mind sometimes felt like chipmunks on steroids!

He does his work but is much more tired than usual. A part-time writer, he sometimes feels his work isn’t quite the quality it was before all this started. Of course that is probably just a negative perception because I know his work and think it has been excellent.

I know this guy so well because it’s me.

Seasonal Affective Disorder affects many people to varying degrees. Although we don’t know why some people get it and others don’t, we know it has a genetic link and that people with a history of depression are at increased risk.

I have had three previous episodes of clinical depression and currently take a maintenance dose of medication. What I am feeling is in the mild range of depression, but for some, depression can be quite severe, triggering thoughts of hopelessness and despair.

The experience of even moderate depression is to live with a mind that feels out of control. Thoughts race; everything feels worrisome, hopeless and never-ending. Depressed people have a tendency to be terribly self-critical and blame themselves for their problems, which only adds to the shame.

The experience of depression is not well-known by the general public. Of course I was partly being light when I talked about chipmunks on steroids, but depression does make one much more self-conscious. And because of the shame and stigma attached, many feel alone and afraid to talk about what’s happening for fear of being harshly judged.

But the big question here is what to do about Seasonal Affective Disorder. One could easily say that it’s only periodic and you just have to live with it, and maybe that’s true. But depression of any sort is not good for your brain and if possible needs to be dealt with quickly and effectively.

Many recommend light boxes to supplement the lack of external light. This is not FDA-approved because the research is not definitive, but there is plenty of evidence that this helps many people. It’s good to consult your doctor or mental-health professional, but not all are knowledgeable about these things.

I have been using lights attached to a sun visor for about two weeks and I have been feeling a bit better. Of course there is no way of knowing whether the lights are contributing, but I certainly hope so because I look incredibly silly in my hat!

Of course medication can be helpful for this as it is for other forms of depression. And some doctors recommend getting a preventive dose of medication before the symptoms begin.

Most people should get about eight to nine hours of sleep a night, but it’s especially important for those with depression since fatigue can make the condition worse and vice versa. But those affected shouldn’t be spending extra time in bed because that will only increase fatigue and worsen the depression.

As with any other depression, frequent aerobic exercise helps as does a healthy diet. Meditation and yoga are also quite helpful. My meditation practice has helped me feel less attached to the depression.

Although I still feel it, it only feels like one of many experiences in my life and it doesn’t control me.

Depression, like any other illness, is helped by the care and support of others. Despite one’s instinct to withdraw, silence makes shame worse. So even though it might feel awkward, it’s important to share what is happening with people whose compassion you trust.

I just did.

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