It happens at the same time every year: your other half — who’s so frisky and fun-loving during the summer — reacts to the end of Daylight Savings like an eight-year-old mourning the loss of their pet rabbit.
He or she starts eating less (or more), becomes cranky and argumentative, and by the time mid-winter rolls around, all they want to do is sit on the lounge and watch TV. When you ask your partner about their odd behavior, all they say is something vague like “I hate the winter.” It’s more likely that they’re having a bout of Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD), a temporary depression triggered by lack of sunlight during the darkest time of the year.
What can you do when someone you love suffers from SAD? We asked Associate Professor Michael Baigent, Clinical Advisor to beyondblue, and Dr. Walter Smitson, professor of psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine, for advice. Here’s what they had to say:
KNOW THE SYMPTOMS
Associate Professor Michael Baigent, Clinical Advisor to beyondblue, says SAD is a depressive illness that has a seasonal pattern. It's characterised by mood disturbances that begin in winter and subside when the season ends. It's usually diagnosed after the person has had the same symptoms during winter for a couple of years.
"The behaviour associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder is quite different from the mood changes a lot of people feel because of the change of season and the disruptions to their summer lifestyle. With SAD, the depression symptoms are more about 'slowing down'. People sleep more, eat more and usually crave carbohydrates, which leads to weight gain. They'll have a lot less energy and won't want to spend time with others. SAD has a cluster of symptoms that makes the person look like they are going into 'hibernation'," Dr Baigent said.
In its most severe form, SAD is marked by crying jags, extreme moodiness, and lack of sex drive, among other symptoms.
Although SAD is not as prevalent in Australia as it is in the Northern Hemisphere, according to various health associations, it is estimated that 1 in 300 Australians will still suffer from it. SAD is diagnosed more often in women and is relatively rare in people under 20.
If you’ve been dating for only a few months — and don’t know your partner’s history — SAD can be especially difficult to deal with. On the one hand, a SAD sufferer may not know they have the condition, so they’ll blame their blahs on the cold weather or on that disastrous dinner with the folks—which, to a partner, can sound a lot like whining. On the other hand, faced with a case of severe, undiagnosed SAD, you may think your partner suffers from long-term depression—possibly making it less likely that you’ll stick around until spring, when the condition goes away.
PLAN YOUR TIME TOGETHER WISELY
Okay, let’s put all the above uncertainty aside and say that your partner has been formally diagnosed with SAD. What can you do to make them feel better, to not make yourself feel worse, and to make it through the winter with your relationship intact? Says Dr. Smitson, “Most people just need reassurance that this will clear up and that there’s nothing horribly wrong with them.”
But there are other, more practical ways to approach the SAD challenge. “A dim, candlelit restaurant isn’t a good idea,” Dr. Smitson says, and neither are movies in darkened theatres—try a trip to the shopping mall instead. And rather than watching TV with the lights off, buy your partner a “sun box,” a bright halogen lamp that mimics the effects of sunlight.
DON’T MAKE ANY IMPORTANT DECISIONS ‘TIL THE SPRING THAW
Sometimes it can’t be avoided, but June, July and August aren’t the best months to discuss big plans for the future if one partner is depressed. This is where undiagnosed SAD can be a real hindrance to relationships. “The partner may start to feel that he’s not really interested in the person with SAD,” Dr. Smitson says.
“When a woman says to me, ‘I was dating this guy for a few weeks, and then he seemed to lose interest,’ I always ask, ‘Were you dating him during the winter months?’” In other words, if you postpone the important talks ’til spring, you’ll be amazed at how much better the two of you communicate.
By Bob Strauss (on behalf of Match.com)
If you think you or your partner suffers from SAD, visit the beyondblue website or phone 1300 224 636 for more info.