Dealing with SAD - Seasonal Affected Disorder


by Mary E. Stephens

Important Note: No information on this site is considered medical advice or counseling.  If you suffer from any of the mental difficulties mentioned herein, please seek help from an appropriate care provider.  The reader takes full responsibility for any information  herein contained that he/she chooses to apply to his/her own personal needs.  The writer does not take responsibility for any results either positive or negative.

Seasonal Affected Disorder is a common and difficult health problem in parts of the world that have long, dark winters with short days.  The more northern regions, and I'd assume the more southern regions, where the days are very short are more susceptible and tend to have more people that require treatment.  I would guess it doesn't exist in areas close to the equator where the light is pretty equal all year. 

For further information on SAD in general, I suggest you do your own research.  This page is dedicated to my own battle, observations and to things that I found helped me personally.

My Story

Psalms 138:6-8 Though the LORD be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly: but the proud he knoweth afar off. Though I walk in the midst of trouble, thou wilt revive me: thou shalt stretch forth thine hand against the wrath of mine enemies, and thy right hand shall save me. The LORD will perfect that which concerneth me: thy mercy, O LORD, endureth for ever: forsake not the works of thine own hands.

I spent the better part of my main growing up years (11-23) in western Michigan, which tends to have heavy, dark winters, though not nearly as bad as more northern regions.  I don't remember experiencing anything while we lived there that resembled the severity of real SAD.  I had some winter blues and cabin fever, to be sure, and some years I really felt the darkness of long cloudy periods.  But, autumn was pretty much my favorite season and I was able to enjoy certain aspects of the "winter wonderland" as the state was called.  My worst memories of that time were dealing with the cold, especially when we had to go out at night.  Sometimes you think your feet will never, ever be warm again!  And, if you live in an old drafty house as we did, some nights you literally have to get up in the night and put on more clothing to stay warm.  But, I digress. :-)

At some point in my mid-thirties the Seasonal Affected Disorder showed up.  The first year I remember it we were living in Tennessee.  Now, Tennessee doesn't usually have very spectacular autumn colors compared to the more northern regions that I grew up with, but that year we had an unusually brilliant fall color display.  My family had been through some challenges and I'd had some dental work done which involved removal of a mercury filling.  I don't know if this had anything to do with my health, but later I wondered because that autumn I developed some new health issues, or had flare ups of pre-existing conditions that hadn't been diagnosed.  I've wondered about the introduction of mercury into my system.  Anyway, I remember being distressed because instead of rejoicing in the fantastic colors, I was grieved because "they will go away so soon."  This felt totally out of character for me compared to my emotions as a child and young adult while living in Michigan.  I was confused.

This brings us to our first point:

Just because you never had SAD before, it does not mean you never will.

As the winter progressed my health deteriorated.  I now know at least some of the conditions that were affecting me at that time were not being addressed properly.  One was interstitial cystitis, which led to inappropriate and unneeded use of antibiotics which further messed up my system.  I also know now that I was starting to suffer from SAD.  There were a lot of emotional things going on at that time for me as well, which compounded things and, not surprisingly, the SAD went under the radar.

I had a couple winters that weren't so bad but still difficult.  But, when I was 39 or 40 I had the worst winter of my life.  I was married and living in Texas by then, and although some northern people might be surprised, my health care provider was not.  Well, she wasn't surprised when she found out.  That first winter with it I didn't tell anyone how bad off I really was.

You see, for the first time in my life I was actually suicidal. 

I know.  There are Christians who sadly still believe that a "true Christian" can't be suicidal. May I just say, I had no good reason to be suicidal?  My life was better than it had been in years.  I was "finally" married and happy, we were settled in a place I liked, we had a church that we liked.  I knew it was totally irrational and unreasonable. But, I couldn't stop the thoughts that came to me.  They intruded upon me and were often unbidden. 

You can argue all day and give all kinds of "proof texts" to show that a Christian can "never" be suicidal or that they will never do such a thing, but when you're done I still won't agree with you.  I have not seen any scripture in the King James Version that makes it absolutely clear that a Christian will never commit suicide, or that if a person does they "obviously" weren't saved.  There are passages that some people interpret to mean that, but it does not say it outright!  I don't know what other translations may or may not say on that subject since the change of a few words may totally change the meaning of a text.  I have never studied up on what other translations actually say in such passages, however, I know people who read other version who don't believe a Christian would "never do that", so I assume there isn't an excuse for such condemnation on that ground either.

But, I didn't start this article to debate that issue.  If you can't get your head around that, that's fine.  You can go read something else if you like.

Thankfully, I had a Christian friend who had suffered 12 years of "real", year-round depression.  She had wisely shared a lot of things with me when she learned I had an anxiety disorder.  One was that when she had suicidal thoughts she rejected them because she knew that if there was one thing the devil wanted her to do, it was to destroy herself and she was determined not to satisfy him in that area at any rate.  I also had experience in dealing with OCD thoughts because of my chronic anxiety disorder.  So, I eventually began to tell myself that these thoughts were "just" my OCD and I'd remind the Lord of that whenever they popped into my head - almost as if it was a different brain in my head that was causing this problem.  (That will only make sense if you've ever dealt with crazy OCD thoughts.)  I also thought that they might be the attack of Satan on me when I was weak and needed to be resisted accordingly.  But, at first they just scared me to death.

Which brings us to our second point:

People won't always tell you when they are suffering from SAD and having suicidal thoughts.  If you experience this yourself, you may not have the power to tell someone what's going on.  I didn't myself.

When you experience something like this, especially when it's pretty much for the first time in your life, and you feel like you're losing control of your mind, it can be amazingly hard to tell someone that you need help.  I'm sure it isn't for everyone, but I know it is for some because I wasn't a singular case.  I couldn't even admit it to my husband. 

Which brings up another important point:

You are not the only one to suffer this way.

The truth is that there are very few very rare diseases in which there will be no one who understands what you are going through.  SAD and most mental disorders are actually quite common.  But, whether you are suffering from a very common mental problem, or from some rare disease that few people have, you are never alone in the struggles and temptations that go with it.  There are others who know the feeling. 1 Corinthians 10:13 There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.  God IS faithful, and He has promised to give you an escape from the temptations, but not necessarily from the SAD (or depression, etc.).  He will help you learn to deal with the problem!  You can find help.

Thank God, my sister-in-law knew I was struggling that winter with some things and she felt compelled to push me to walk - for whatever reason.  She made sure I got out often to walk.  In retrospect I think she may have saved my life.  I don't say that just to be dramatic.  I say it because if you're suffering SAD (or any depression), one of the most important things you can do is--


If you have a loved one whom you think is suffering from SAD and they don't realize it or won't admit it, the best thing you can do for them is to push them hard to get out and walk - and GO WITH THEM.  They NEED YOU!  Talk with them and help them with anything they do want to talk to you about.  If you are really concerned with the depth of their problem, you may even feel led of the Lord to specifically ask them if they are having suicidal thoughts.  Don't act surprised or shocked if they tell you they are, or even volunteer this information without you asking.  They don't need to be told they are "wicked", stupid, or unreasonable.  Chances are they already feel those things, even if the thoughts are unbidden and irrational.  They need reassurance and help, not judgment.  Hebrews 12:12-13 Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees; And make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed.  You can't lift up the feeble knees and help the lame by beating them over the head with your "shoulds" and "should nots".  Just sayin'...  What's needed is a helping hand UP.  If you don't know how to help them yourself, find someone who does!

Part of my difficulty was that I was terrified of being put on anti-depressants.  I've had some bizarre experiences with a few medications that have messed with my mind in a major way, so the thought of powerful anti-depressants was more frightening than the depression was at that point for me.  The anxiety contributes to that.  (I do take a milder variety of anti-anxiety medication which is non-addictive, and I have for years.)

Anyway, though at first I thought I'd maybe gotten into some real depression of the more lasting sort, what made me finally realize the source of this problem was the coming of Spring.  When the days lengthened, I felt better and better and eventually it went away.  Sometime in the summer I was finally able to admit to my health care provider and my husband what I had suffered and we talked about methods of treatment.  My health care provider was pretty much stuck on the pharmaceutical treatments, but she was willing for us to do anything that worked, as long as it did work and I didn't end up in that same hole again.  My husband was eager to help me find some non-medication methods for dealing with the problem as he understood my concern over the prescription drugs.

Thankfully, the Lord led us to some things that really have helped.  I am listing them here for you.  Some of the herbal things may not help everyone, and some people may be helped by herbs that I didn't try or can't use for other reasons.  This is just what worked for me, so far, and I am putting it here for whatever it's worth.

One important thing to remember when dealing with almost any health-related difficulty, including mental health, is that--


There is very likely no one thing that will resolve the whole SAD problem for you.  The source of it is undoubtedly more complicated than one single issue, so it's no surprise that it requires a change to living patterns and activity on several fronts to resolve it or improve it.  As with so many things in life, this is a problem that affects us spiritually, physically and mentally/emotionally all at the same time.

Things That Have Helped

1. Light therapy.

There is a very good reason why Jesus Christ is called the light of the world.  Light is one of the most elemental necessities of our life.  Without it, we would die.  We depend upon it for almost everything we eat.  Sunlight is essential for life in almost every form, and it has an amazing healing power.  It's hard to understand the value that sunlight has in our mental well-being until you have suffered from SAD.  Think of all the scripture that compares the Lord to light, and even to the sun. 

Malachi 4:2 But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall. 

Psalms 84:11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.

I can't emphasize the helpfulness of light therapy enough.  It is literally a God-send for me.  It isn't a total resolution for me but, when used properly, it's an almost miraculous help when combined with the other things.  Even though I know what to expect, I'm still kind of frightened every fall when all of the sudden in September the SAD starts to kick in.  Some people recommend starting the light therapy in October.  We live in Texas.  I start using it off and on in September and increase as the days shorten.  (If the weather is extra cloudy, I start increasing my use even sooner.)  I generally continue using it through March and do a similar pattern of tapering off in April depending on how I feel and the weather. 

The first year or so I used it for about 15-30 minutes, erring on the side of too little.  Last year I discovered that I get much more help from it if I use it for at least 30 minutes a day and preferably for 45 minutes a day.  I think when we had multiple days of cloudy weather I even used it sometimes for 60 minutes a day.  This isn't necessarily what everyone needs.  Listen to your body.  Occasionally I don't need that much, and my body will tell me so.

The light I use does not provide ultraviolet, so there is no concern about skin problems.

I was not asked to review either of these products for any remuneration of any sort.  This is my honest opinion, and mine only.
There are a number of different lights available.  The one that I use on a daily basis at home is the NatureBright Sun Touch.  We got this one because at the time I was researching and wanting to buy, it seemed like the others of similar type were all more expensive.  This one has worked well for me.  I've used it several years and had no trouble with it.  I don't use the ionization feature that mine came with because I didn't like it.  I like to sit in front of it while I'm eating breakfast and reading.  I think it helps in a secondary way by allowing me to ease into the day.

Last year we also bought this small travel model, Lightphoria from Sphere Gadget Technologies.  We took this with us on at least the trip to Australia.  I used it on that trip to deal with jet lag, and it seemed to help.  I have not used it long term to deal with the SAD, so I can't honestly say whether it is as effective for that as the other light is.  I don't like the light quality of this one as much as the NatureBright.

Even more powerful light therapy is available through medical means.  Ask your health care provider if you feel you need something better.  You may need to go to a location to receive something more intense and effective.

Note: One added benefit of the light therapy is that some people feel that using it tends to make them more creative.  This has the extra benefit in that doing creative things often is helpful in dealing with these types of issues.  Something in the process of creativity (even if we're just following instructions for a project) is therapeutic, and no surprise since God is the Creator and we're made in His image.

2. Vitamin D3 supplement.

NOTE: As with all supplements and herbs, consult your doctor, herbalist or naturopath before using, especially if you are on any other medications, herbs or supplements.
This made a marked improvement for me as well.  I now take it all year as I noticed that when I went off of it in the Spring I felt differently in a negative way.  I take a higher dose in the winter.  This is something that you will have to experiment with if you decide to try it. 

3. Lemon Balm

This is pretty gentle herb that is a kind of mint.  You can use it as a tea.  You can even grow your own if you want to.  I take capsules at this time because it's handier.  I generally take it morning and evening, or on demand as I also use it to deal with the anxiety disorder.  It has a calming affect, but it usually doesn't make me sleepy during the day unless I'm already short of sleep.

4. Rhodiola Rosea

This is an herb that has been used in Russia for some time from what I understand.  It is used for energy, alertness and to steady nerves.  I've found it very helpful in the SAD season, though I use it other times as well when needed.  I take it at breakfast and lunch only.  It's not recommended to take it after noon because it can keep you awake at night.

When it comes to herbs and supplements I tend to try things.  If there is apparently a noticeable improvement I'll keep on, but I'll often drop them at some point to see if I notice a negative effect.  I may repeat this pattern more than once.  This way I can determine by personal experimentation as to whether it's really doing anything for me.  If you're uncertain if something is really helping, I recommend using this method - with the usual disclaimers regarding medical providers and all.
5. Flaxseed, Evening Primrose and Fish Oils

These oils were recommended in my reading as useful in dealing with SAD.  I have used all three of these at various times.  Lately my system has not been dealing as well with the oils, so I've dropped them for the most part, but there did seem to be a benefit.

6. Exercise

Again, I want to emphasize that walking, and exercise in general, are very helpful in dealing with SAD.  If you can't walk outside due to snow or inclement weather maybe you could join a gym, buy a walking machine, or drive to a mall to walk.  (Um...if you're a "shopaholic" leave your money and credit card at home, or walking at the mall may not help.)  It is worth an investment.  Walking is wonderfully therapeutic.  It releases the "feel good" endorphins, for one thing. 

7. Work outside if you can.

If you live in an area where you can actually work outside during the winter months, I recommend it.  Being outside will help get whatever natural sunlight is available, and fresh air is almost a tonic during the winter months.  Even getting sun in your eyes has mental health benefits.

Digging in the dirt has also been proven to be therapeutic.  Not only is it believed by some to balance our electric charge in relation to the earth under us, but there are actually micro-organisms in the dirt that are beneficial to our gut health and even for helping with anxiety and perhaps depression (see more - external link).

Which brings us to--

8. Eat a healthy diet.  If you have digestive problems try a probiotic, get medical help and/or eat more kindly toward your stomach.

You've heard it before, but it really does make a difference.  Reduce sugar, get enough solid protein in proportion to carbohydrates, eat healthful oils, avoid caffeine, drink enough water, etc.  Chocolate helps with those "feel-good" endorphins too, along with other healthful benefits.

Digestive health plays such an important role in our overall health.  If you have chronic digestive issues of any sort, these may play a role in worsening your overall difficulties surrounding the SAD.  If for no other reason, they can reduce the absorption of necessary nutrients that would help your body deal with the problem.  Try a probiotic to see if that helps calm things down, or seek medical help if that seems necessary.  If you know what bothers your system, stick with a diet that gives you better digestion.  It is worth the sacrifice. 

9. Get social interaction and moral support.

Whether it's going to church fellowship, visiting friends and family, forcing yourself to plan days out, go to your quilters' guild meeting, or whatever else, social interaction is SO important when dealing with SAD, anxiety, depression and other problems of like kind.  Did you know that hugs can boost oxytocin levels, helping us feel less lonely and isolated?  They can also release tension and help produce more serotonin.  We NEED EACH OTHER, people.  Reclusiveness is not healthful.  It is hard in the winter to get out sometimes.  I know.  My family lived with that for more than 12 years.  Sometimes it's impossible.  But, don't miss the opportunities you do have if at all possible.  Especially don't allow yourself to avoid interacting with people because you think your problem (SAD) is too bad.  That only makes it worse!  Really!  If all else fails, call someone on the (cell) phone or through Skype.  We have amazing resources these days. 

There's more than one reason why we're told in scripture, And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching. Hebrews 10:24-25

We often need the moral support of someone who will stick with us in our battle to deal with SAD as well.  My sister-in-law helping me to walk that winter was one way this can happen.  My husband encouraging me to be proactive and start my light therapy earlier was another benefit I've had from having someone helping me with this fight.  Ask the Lord to provide you with that support if you don't have it.  One way or another He will.

[Photo source unknown.]

10.  Find things that help you laugh.  Avoid morbid, depressing or overly emotional things as you are able.

Laughter is wonderful at healing and releasing stress.  And, to combine two things here - get around people with a merry heart.  Seek them out.

Proverbs 17:22 A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.

When we're struggling with SAD or other similar things it is important to be careful what we allow to enter our eyes and ears.  What are you reading?  Are they uplifting books?  Do they harrow up your emotions and leave you drained and exhausted, or even crying?  What are you listening to and watching?  Are they things that lift up and encourage?  Are they things that give joy or cheerfulness?  Or are they things that introduce depressing or morbid thoughts?  Do they make you feel more stressed or unhappy than before you listened or watched them? 

In weaning myself off of some things I have learned what a huge impact reading material, music and movies/videos can have on our mental health.  I know some people are puzzled sometimes at things that I refuse to watch, but I know what a difference it makes for my overall emotional equilibrium.  Sometimes you do what you have to do and don't worry about people who don't understand it.  This doesn't mean that I keep myself ignorant of things.  Anyone who reads my writing regularly knows I study and deal with some heavy material.  But, I try to deal with it at times when I'm up to it and not in quantities that will leave me an emotional wreck.

Philippians 4:8 Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

11.  Keep in the BOOK.

Read your Bible.  If you struggle with some of the heavier areas, go to the more comforting ones.  Some Psalms are a great help.  Others are depressing when you're already depressed.  My favorite "go-to" books when I'm struggling are John's gospel and his epistles and Ruth.  Make a notebook of passages you find helpful and uplifting and read through those during the harder months.

Psalms 119:105 Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.

In Conclusion

As I said before, there is no silver bullet.  These measure may not resolve your SAD effectively.  I believe the light therapy will be beneficial to anyone dealing with SAD or similar light-deficiency issues, but if there are other health problems or nutritional deficiencies involved it may not be as effective for some as it is for others.  Dealing with SAD is a multi-faceted problem and requires changes and effort in various areas.  If you need a medication, it may be beneficial for you to take that route as well.  I hesitate to say that, knowing the many and complex complications and side effects that some people experience from them, but in some cases I've also known people who were really helped by anti-depressants of one sort or another.  The Lord will lead you to the right plan for you, if you will listen to Him and seek His counsel.

But, don't give up!  This problem can be dealt with and at least improved.  It will take effort, though.  You can't just sit around and expect things to improve on their own.  Oh, it will improve when the season changes, of course, but you don't have to suffer through every winter that way - at least seek help and try some things to improve the situation.  If you are suicidal YOU MUST SEEK HELP.  Your life may depend upon it.  Please, don't imagine that you are alone in that torment.  Reach out to someone who can help you.  Don't be afraid of seeking help.  And, I might also add, don't go to someone who you know will tell you it's all your fault.  I have to say that because, sadly, sometimes when we're in a state of mental and emotional stress we'll go for "help" to the very person we ought not to go to - and if we're honest with ourselves we know we're doing the wrong thing.

If someone reaches out to you, or you are concerned that someone you know is suffering from SAD, please help them get the help they need.  You may save a life.  You can at least perhaps make them much happier.  If you've never had SAD it's hard to imagine the anguish and frustration of being so materially affected by the lack of sunlight.

Speaking of John the Baptist, Zacharias prophesied of him, but he also spoke some interesting words about the Lord Jesus, referring to Him as the "dayspring from on high":

Luke 1:76-79 And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

God delights to give light to His children, especially in the person of His Son.  Psalms 97:11 Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart.  If you need physical light, how much more we all need spiritual light.  There are many people in this dark, sin sick world who are suffering spiritual darkness far, far worse than what any of us experience with SAD. 

For Christians it is a Christ-like ministry to give light to those who are in darkness and the shadow of death (suicidal).  This applies to spiritual issues both in giving the gospel to the lost, but also in helping fellow Christians through dark times in their lives, including SAD.  2 Peter 1:19 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: 

It is also our responsibility as believers to seek to walk in His light spiritually speaking.  The physical disorders that come from lack of sunlight should only serve to remind us of the importance of the spiritual light that comes from fellowship with God.  1 John 1:5-7 This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.

For the unbeliever - those who have not come to Jesus Christ for their salvation - there is light and life in Jesus Christ for you spiritual darkness as well as help for the mental or emotional problem caused by physical darkness.  John 8:12 Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.  [Please write if you need more information.]

Finally, let God comfort you.  He knows your pain, suffering and struggle better than anyone, and He cares more than anyone.

Psalms 94:17-19 Unless the LORD had been my help, my soul had almost dwelt in silence. When I said, My foot slippeth; thy mercy, O LORD, held me up. In the multitude of my thoughts within me thy comforts delight my soul.


[Photo by Elisabeth M. Used by permission.]

More information you may find useful:

 A Few Practical Helps - Some repetition here, but a more comprehensive list of helps for dealing with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, SAD, etc.




Graphics and photos by Peter and Mary Stephens
except where otherwise noted
Posted Sept. 2014