How to Cope With Seasonal Affective Disorder at Work
Seven people share their struggles and how they’re making it through the winter.
When a new year begins, it can feel like everyone at work is brimming with excitement: they’ve hit reset, they’ve set goals, and they’re ready to achieve them. But starting the year on a positive, ambitious note can be much more difficult for people who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This type of depression—also referred to as seasonal depression or winter depression—occurs most commonly in the fall and winter and takes its toll with symptoms like low energy, appetite changes, lost interest in certain activities and feelings of hopelessness, among others. And while the exact cause of SAD is unknown (it’s potentially related to the rise of melatonin and drop of serotonin in the body, both due to decreased sunlight), one thing is clear: It impacts a lot of people. According to Psychology Today, SAD affects an estimated 10 million Americans (in addition to the people who experience mild SAD) and is four times more common in women than in men.
If you have SAD, or aren’t sure if your symptoms are more than a mild case of the “winter blues,” it’s important to speak with a doctor. And in the meantime, know you’re not alone, even when you feel completely surrounded by that “new year, new you” cheer in the office. Ahead, eight people share how seasonal depression impacts them at work and how they cope.
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Lizbeth Meredith, 55, Juvenile Probation Supervisor and Writer, Anchorage, Alaska
“Seasonal Affective Disorder catches me unaware every December. By then, the cumulative effect of all-day darkness means I’m more forgetful and lethargic, and my already intense day job feels overwhelming and un-doable. Creativity comes to a screeching halt as I head for bed early and slap the snooze button on my alarm in the morning, losing valuable writing time. The best case scenario means I cut back on sugar and flour and put my grippers on over my shoes and go for a lunch-hour walk while listening to a motivational podcast. My office has almost no natural light, so walking gets my heart rate going, gives me vitamin D, and is a real mood elevator. I also take vitamin D supplements. And above all, when my thoughts get as dark as the sky, I remind myself that soon, the light will come.”
Kay Allison, 60, Co-Founder of Farm & Oven Snacks, Boulder, Colorado
“For me, SAD is a severe case of the winter blues. I’m so lethargic, and my thoughts feel like they’re swimming through molasses. I’m not very quick to understand issues or generate new ideas (and as an entrepreneur, this is my job); I procrastinate on returning emails or calls. A lot of my job is to be active on social media and selling to retail chains. For that, I need to be energetic and upbeat. When I’m deeply into my seasonal depression, I’m dull, not sparkly.
To bolster my mood during the darker days, I use a light box every morning from mid-September through mid-April. I start with a few minutes a day, working my way up to 20 minutes a day in the dead of winter. I go to therapy every week. If I’m particularly teary, my therapist will suggest adding some time to the light box or changing the level of the medications and supplements I take to even my mood out. And I am very careful to get eight hours of sleep a night.”
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Mel D'Amato, 34, Trucking Brokerage Account Manager and Project Manager at One Shot Podcast Network, Chicago, IL
“I lose motivation when I leave work and it’s already dark out. My day feels like it has already ended and I feel defeated. I take vitamin D every morning, and that has helped a lot. In the last three years, I finally went to my general practitioner and asked for medication. When I was young, I was diagnosed with chronic depression, so I’ve taken meds on and off my entire life. I stopped 12 years ago, saying I would never go back, but sometimes you need the help. I’m glad I started again. It’s been an incredible help.”
S. Nicole Lane, 29, Editorial Associate, Chicago, IL
“As a freelance journalist who also works a full time job at a newspaper, I am constantly working. As a workaholic, I’ve always been very organized and proactive. But when I’m dealing with SAD, I forget deadlines, sleep through my alarm, and feel incredibly absent from the workplace. I have a hard time talking to coworkers or putting myself into social settings within the workplace.
This year, I signed up for a gym over the summer in preparation (I stop exercising in the winter and I can feel how it alters my mood), tried to eat better, started taking vitamins, and set an early alarm to get up hours before work starts. Although I’m not going [to the gym] as much as I would like, it does get me out of the house. I’ve also been better at saying ‘no’ to friends when they ask to hang out when I know that my body needs a rest and I don’t feel well enough to go out into the Chicago winter night. On the other side of that, I make sure that I’m not becoming too much of a recluse; I do try to go out once or twice a week so that I’m not entirely turning inward and shutting people out. Nevertheless, I’m still dealing with seasonal depressive symptoms. [But] I’m lucky to work in alternative media, where I can tell my coworkers and my boss, ‘Hey, I’m depressed and having a down day,’ and no one reprimands me. They are all a supportive group of people.”