Fie to you, February! As a seasoned combatant with the Winter Blues (a.k.a. “Seasonal Affective Disorder” – was ever a title so clearly selected for its acronym?) – I’m used to woeful Octobers, but normally I’m really waking up at this time of year. Unfortunately, the past two weeks here in central Scotland have been grey and gloomy, and I’m still sitting about bearing more resemblance to a pot of primordial ooze than to a perky and productive member of the human species.
I find it increasingly jarring that this annual affliction is referred to as “Blues” or SAD, because it doesn’t primarily make me sad or depressed: instead, it causes a huge seasonal hike in my underlying anxiety level. I think we all have a certain baseline of unconscious anxiety bubbling away, that spikes up into conscious anxiety from time to time as worrying things happen. For me, SAD raises that baseline so that I begin to experience near-continual conscious anxiety in a totally irrational way – worrying about things that haven’t happened (and probably won’t), or about trivial things I wouldn’t normally give a second thought to.
If this is typical of SAD sufferers, then it’s not surprising that we end up feeling really worn out. Perpetual anxiety is like forgetting to turn off your car’s parking lights: it’s a state of constant, low-level energy drain, even when you’re not doing anything or going anywhere. (And, just to labour the metaphor, a state that, uncorrected, could quite plausibly lead to the dead battery of depression).
Anyway, I associate SAD with yellow rather than blue, not because of any fancy literary allusion or synaesthetic parallel with anxiety, but because its adversary, in my own case, is a plant with pretty yellow flowers.
Moderate to severe SAD is generally treated with a winter-long course of anti-depressants, usually an SSRI such as Prozac. However, based on my previous experience with SSRIs as a depression treatment, I was reluctant to go down that route: I really dislike the way SSRI drugs seem to numb me, shutting all my emotions away behind some internal cotton-woolly barrier, and thereby preventing me from actually dealing with whatever it is that’s causing the problem.
The herbal remedy St John’s Wort is an officially prescribed treatment for depression in Germany, and NHS doctors in the UK are increasingly suggesting it (in lieu of conventional anti-depressants) as a treatment for the symptoms of SAD. (I know one GP who actually takes it himself for this). In desperation at my seasonally-slumping mood and productivity, I somewhat reluctantly decided to try it. To my surprise, I found that unlike the broad-brush SSRIs, the SJW had a tightly-focussed effect: it drastically tuned down my anxiety level, but didn’t appear to alter anything else.
The SJW doesn’t entirely fix the “slumpiness” I experience at this time of year, but it’s certainly helped me to stop spinning my wheels on worrying and put that saved energy into something useful. I’m always ambivalent about taking psychoactive medications, because of a background concern that I might be drowning out some psychological issue I actually need to deal with. In the case of SAD, however, it seems pretty clear-cut that my irrational anxiety, so perfectly correlated with the seasons, with the length and brightness of the days, is both externally-triggered and more physiological than psychological. If a little yellow pill can help to keep it from chewing up four or five months of my life every year, I’m ok with that.