Writing with SAD

Fed with with the news and weather? Low energy and bored with most things? Eating more chocolate? Even though brilliant December days lighten the feeling, many of us dislike that grey dull period stretching from dismal November to that liver-yellow time in February and view with relief the first flower burst in spring.

But for a small proportion of us, it takes over our lives. We actively dread the shortening of the days.  Anxious eyes note the day length on the clock each evening. Cosy evenings around an open fire don’t do it for us. Winter means darkness, the withdrawal of life’s light, a shutting down of our being. Christmas is a brief respite; a sugar, carbohydrate and alcohol push with family and friends, but it’s soon gone. Valentine’s Day passes by in a distant drift; it’s happening out there, not inside your own world.

If this sounds self-pitying and sentimental, it’s a taste of what really happens. We’re not looking at winter blues, but at a blight on daily life for several months of the year. You lose direction, everyday tasks become onerous and complicated, even simple regular self-care and time slips out of your grasp. You almost can’t be bothered to make a cup of tea. For some, including me, eyesight deteriorates temporarily. Functioning on two out of four pistons is quite a good analogy.

The renowned Mayo Clinic lists the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder more objectively:

Symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD, sometimes called winter depression, may include:

  • Irritability
  • Tiredness or low energy
  • Problems getting along with other people
  • Hypersensitivity to rejection
  • Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain

What does this mean as a writer?
The first sign is that you lack the natural obsession to pour out words onto the keyboard. Your usually crap typing deteriorates to unbelievably bad levels. You miss things out, you forget how to spell. You forget to note down research sources and you even lose the plot – literally. You forget to answer emails and miss blogpost deadlines. And you fret about it, castigating yourself. That is, when it’s all passing you by as just too much effort.

Any day when you see poor sales adds to the growing black dog feeling as we lurch towards mid-winter. You become locked into your own world of failing energy. Your nearest and dearest see a moody, unsmiling person who has lost her enthusiasm for anything and gained multiple sensitivity antennae. February is worst as you’ve had months of light deterioration. And both my (thankfully short) bouts of clinical depression began in late January.

Why does this happen to otherwise energetic, well-motivated and cheery people? Nobody really knows! It’s probably one of those Stone Age things when sensible people retreated into the cave for winter hibernation.

Three things may play a role:

  • Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight  may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
  • Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood and which may trigger depression.
  • Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is considered a subtype of major depression. Not being dramatic, you should take SAD signs and symptoms seriously. As with other types of depression, SAD can get worse and lead to even more serious problems if it’s not treated. These can include social withdrawal, school or work problems, substance abuse or even suicidal thoughts or behaviour.

So what can we do about it?
The first thing is recognising it for what is. It’s not you losing your marbles or at best feeling a bit down on every dull day. Obviously, it’s best to see your doctor about this, but I’ve found these ways of coping.

  • Getting outside even on the grottiest winter day. If it’s one of those crisp sunny days, then that’s an enormous bonus. Find somewhere sheltered to sit and lap up the sun.
  • Exercise (I know!) But if you can go for a walk as well on that sunny day you can almost feel normal. And even indoor exercise can lift your mood, even temporarily. And all that sweating, breathlessness and protesting muscles give you something different to moan about. More seriously, it can depress your ravenous appetite and keep weight gain down.
  • Indoors, work near a window, grab the sunniest room in the house for your writing room.
  • Lightbox. Now the good ones are not cheap, but mine works for me, especially if I use it in the first hours of the morning, so I regard it as an investment that has changed my life.
  • Attitude and self-discipline (also known as grit). These are the hardest; true uphill work. You have to make your brain take control. If you can set some goals/write a to-do list, establish some kind of structure to your day, even set events in your diary, it helps keep the muddle away.
  • Self care; rest, keeping warm, tea, vitamins, yoga, balanced meals at regular times, days out. Have a long, hot bath – great for both warmth and relaxation.
  • Don’t nag yourself and don’t listen to any horrible little imagined voices saying words like ‘wimp’, ‘pathetic’, ‘ought’, ‘should’, ‘lazy’ or similar.
  • Visualise: I know, it’s a bit touchy-feely, but imagine (or remember) lying somewhere pleasant soaking up so much sun that it seems to get right into your bones. Twenty concentrated minutes of that can stimulate the same responses in your body as the real thing. (Apparently it also works for chocolate cravings.) Well, it seems to make me feel a little less down.

I’m not a doctor, so please don’t take what I do as any kind of treatment. I’ve just learnt over the years that these things help me.

Update 2021: These days I’ve added a daily Vitamin D tablet into the mix. Even if it just produces expensive wee, I feel it might do me some good.

Update January 2023: My new general practitioner gave me 6 months’ worth of concentrated Vitamin D taken in a single dose each end of month. Seems a bit sledgehammer approach, but I’m not arguing.

But nothing makes me feel happier than when that first daffodil bursts out of its green sheath into yellow glory.

The long days will have returned.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series.Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA, a new Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, is now out.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines and taste world the latest contemporary thriller Double Identity… Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email update. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

22 comments to Writing with SAD

  • Had no idea you suffered from SAD, Alison. These grey days when there’s not a glimmer of sunlight are so depressing. I don’t suffer from SAD myself, but I know plenty of people who do. Your tips are very sensible – simple but usually pretty effective! Roll on spring time!!

    • Alison Morton

      It’s been with me much of my life but I’ve not really gone on about it before. I do all the coping stuff and it only gets to me now and then. But when you’re trying to get on with organising your work, especially a book launch, it’s a bit of s nuisance.

  • Hello fellow saddie :-/ I’ve not had a bad bout since we moved to Devon, probably the move and the better than London scenery here, but I’ve had it with a vengeance this year. Tiredness mostly – its really hard to get up of a morning (yet I sleep well enough) All I really want to do it hibernate, but as you say, there are things that have to be done.

    I would add that I find taking regular Vitamin D helps – my fault these last couple of weeks, I’ve run out, so am off my dosage. But then I can’t be bothered to get some more… vicious circle. (And it really DOESN’T help when you go to your doctor about painful arthritis in your knee and you get told ‘its because you’re over weight.’ Yes, I know i am a) it hurts to walk b) my sight means I can’t walk fast c) SAD = chocolate. Which in total means more depression. B*gger it… where’s that box of chocs left over from Christmas & I’m off to watch TV. So there.

    Thank you, my dear, for a chance to have a real moan and not feel guilty about it! *laugh* Hugs xxx

    • Alison Morton

      It’s such a strange thing – it makes us remember that we are part of the animal kingdom many of whose members obey the seasons. Quite why we feel obliged to bash on when our bodies don’t want to is one of those conundrums of modern life.

      If posting this has helped you, Helen, then I’m glad I did.

  • Yes… this is me… and it’s ‘horrible! I bought a pink LiteBox after you kindly sent me their website link a couple of years ago (I think it was) I did use it for a couple of weeks this year… and then when we had a few bright sunny days, I packed it away! Bad idea. It is a right b*m! I hibernate when it rains, and feel thankful my 2 dogs refuse to go out. Have to say, a brisk (forced) walk on a sunny day does lift my spirits. I even get back to writing book 4… but, when the skies are grey…there’s not much chance of getting on with it. Can’t be bothered, is how I feel. Mine starts mid October and carries on until the end of February. Hate it. I can feel inside my head that I avoid going out… dreadful isn’t it.

    • Alison Morton

      It took me a long time to acknowledge it. I just thought it was just me not liking rain, snow and the cold. Then I checked dates for various things and started keeping a diary. It was too much of a coincidence.
      Bit of a ‘fall’ for somebody who usually dismisses such things…

      Really sorry you are affected, too, Caz.

      But you just have to get on with it and take measures to combat it. Being aware is the best weapon in the armoury.

      • Only a thought, but like above (you Alison, Caz…) I truly thought this was just me but the ‘can’t be bothered to write’ syndrome appears to be a big factor. Of course for the more organised (LOL like Alison!) what is needed is to plan ahead, write from March – October & edit, plan etc during the SAD season. Don’t know about you lot, but that doesn’t seem to work out though! Motivation seems to be a BIG factor, and for is indies being on our own = no one to keep us bouyed up and ‘keen’. Would it be an idea to have a FB private group for author Saddies? Maybe as a sort of meeting pklace just for the winter where we can moan, whine, grumble, cry, or share frustration – plus some laughs and good times – knowing we’re not being thought of as moaning whiners because we’re all in the same boat? Maybe a ‘I’ve got your back’ sort of comfort zone where we can boost each other (and therefore ourselves) up a bit? For writers only & a private group? No need really to monitor, just initially to vet people wanting to join in as genuine saddie writers?

  • Morning now, and am ashamed to say I’ve just crawled out of bed…at 10.30am ~ pouring with rain and it’s dark. I’ve also plugged in my pink LitePod, again. Should never have put it away when I did. Goodness, the room is brimming with sunlight thanks to it’s amazing white light. I won’t be putting it away until the end of March when we put the clocks forward. A shout to Helen: Honestly, you should buy one! It does bring spring indoors. No amount of sitting in our conservatory with its many huge windows has this affect on my brain! The white light from my LitePod mimics seretonin, and tricks the brain! Magic – I am smiling – I stupidly packed it away a month ago when I felt better…and after having the pod on all day…so it does work. It’s on now, made husband Geoff smile, and it’ll stay ON. No doubt I shall be on a magical high by mid-day… laughs. Get a LitePod for your desk Helen. I chose a pink casing, but, they do come in different colours. Appreciate your blog Alison. Shared it to twitter, and to my author FB page. I don’t hide the fact that I’m a S A D sufferer. It’s a mental illness and one that needs to be talked about openly.

  • Don’t forget diminishing vitamin D levels. I always loose Vit D over the winter but this time my doc stocked me up on Vit D before the dark days of December started. Low levels of vit D can make you feel exhausted, your bones painful and muscle aches and depressed.
    Strangely enough though, for the last two years I have had two bouts of low mood and lethargy in mid summer. So it seems i have the opposite to SAD! But depression is depression and its imperative that it gets treated. Add to it the symptoms of menopause and women can get knocked for six, I’m sad to say, physically and mentally.
    So take Alison’s advice folks, make sure you do something about it if you experience those symptoms.
    And thanks to Alison for raising the topic.

    • Alison Morton

      Oh, yes, Vitamin D. I take a general vitamin and minerals supplement most of the time but always in winter. Now, it might just end up as expensive wee, but I see it as a bit of insurance.

  • Helen, my exact same thoughts this morning. A Group page. Great minds and all that. Or, just S A D minds! A great idea. Have to say, my writing does end at the onset of October. Resumes in March/April. I waste 5 months messing about on FB and Twitter. And you’re not alone with the S A D during winter. It’s such a nuisance. Winter should be a time to get the writing done. I can’t write during this time, I simply can’t be bothered. I can’t raise any enthusiasm. Such a waste of a writer’s time.

  • … and now it’s officially Spring… and my brain is unscrambled, wires uncrossed. Singing like the birds… well, singing along… happy days at long last. CG

  • Thought I might have drowned more than once.

    • Alison Morton

      It seems a simple thing to do, doesn’t it? When it’s a bright December or January day, I bundle up and try to walk for about 20 mins. I know the sunlight isn’t as strong as in summer, but in my mind I feel my body is getting a mini bonus.

  • Prue Batten

    I don’t suffer SAD, but I have a friend in her late 70’s who does and I think she copes well – Vitamin D, dogs, nutrient-rich organic food, gardening, planning and keeping busy. She has two labs and you will find her either walking her dogs, gardening (she is a true plantsman), cooking, painting (she’s a stunning artist), chatting with friends or knitting and listening to the radio in front of a leaping fire. She doesn’t use any extra light at all but keeps busy until spring comes and her life becomes really full-on. But I shall mention the lite-pod to her. Listening to her, and to Monty Don who suffers depression, there’s something truly hopeful in gardening – a reliability in the cycle. That even whilst it’s gloomy outside, below the soil nature is busy growing, putting forth so that when spring comes, we can see its full beauty. Stay bright, Alison – many good suggestions in all the comments.

    • Alison Morton

      Gardening can be a lifesaver in the winter, I agree. Being outside for an hour or two even in the weak sunshine is a tonic, but it needs to be regular. Unfortunately, the weather is not always our friend. Thank you, Prue, for such a thoughtful comment.

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