I love September and October – the colors of orange, yellow and red on the trees. I like sleeping with the windows open and hearing the temperature slowed chirp of a cricket and maybe the occasional hoot of an owl. All of these things are a welcomed departure from the fevered pitch of tree frogs and midnight muffler less motorcycles. The air smells different, with a hint of drying leaves, the last tomatoes, crushed marigolds and surprise green bean or two. If I had a choice, I would keep autumn all year long, a lovely balance of day and night, bright sun, beautiful moon, plus chances to drink iced tea and hot cocoa all in the same day. Lurking just around the corner though… is that time of year. What I am referring to is the cyclical harbinger of doom for many of my clients.
On November 7, in most of the United States we will turn the clocks back. This, combined with the decrease in daylight hours, creates a perfect storm. For individuals diagnosed with major depression and a specifier of seasonal affective disorder, this time of year contributes to an increase in symptoms. Many clients report fatigue, inexplicable sadness, and feelings of helplessness. They struggle to wake up, stay awake, and they sleep much more than usual. Their lives change from managing their symptoms, to fighting to make it through the day, to isolating and avoiding many of the activities and people that filled their lives in days of spring and summer.
I have worked with some of my client’s off and on through a year’s worth of seasons to recognize the shifts in mood. Their mood diaries and journals help them to monitor changes, and provide a road map to this often-traveled place. A few clients will ask their psychiatrist to increase their antidepressant for a short time; others will avail themselves to light therapy, Vitamin D3, or long walks on sunny days. Though each person’s remedy may differ, they all seek the same thing, relief from the pall that settles upon them during this time of year. I encourage clients, beginning in August, to start planning for adjustments in their lifestyle. For some, simple tweaks in diet and sleep prepare them to weather the months ahead. Others will need stronger interventions – though many, with planning, are quite successful in shoring up in the face of the storm.
I used to think that the crush of celebrated days in November and December and the accompanying hyper-expectations (rarely met) were main contributors to many folks feeling blah, including myself. The bah-humbugs, the grumpy curmudgeon in the corner – the stuff of literature and high school plays. However, when seasonal expectations and the lack of daylight combine, many things may seem more challenging – like walking through jello instead of life. So…I try to make sure I follow my own advice. I get out in the sun, sleep enough and connect with others (in situations where the only expectation is conversation) in order to make the passage through the darkness a lighter shade of grey.
How will you get ready for November 7?
Kathy Renfree is a counselor in a community mental health setting, teaches in a graduate counseling program as needed, and is looking forward to building a private practice.