Seasonal Affective Disorder Series Part II: How SAD Impacts Other Conditions

Last week, I briefly defined Seasonal Affective Disorder and the very basics of how it works in the winter, and I outlined some of the symptoms most people tend to complain of. This week, I think it’s important to touch on how SAD can impact other conditions.

 

SAD is sometimes tricky because it can have a temporary impact on other mental health conditions. Those suffering from psychotic symptoms, for example, may notice increases in hallucinations, difficulty focusing, harder time waking up (which can be further impacted by medications), weight gain (also an impacted side-effect of medications), or general lethargy. In my practice, I work almost exclusively with clients suffering from PTSD. A hallmark of PTSD can be extended periods of anxiety or depression, which can also be worsened with less access to natural light. In the earlier part of the winter, around the holidays, many of my clients also face trauma/loss anniversaries, triggers from difficult family dynamics, feeling drained by fuller-than-normal social calendars, end-of-year work stuff, etc. And those suffering from bipolar or other mood disorders are even more at risk of depressive periods despite sticking to strict medication, diet, supplement, and exercise regimens. 

 

Maybe reading this information is teaching you something for the first time, or maybe it’s validating something you’ve experienced or are presently experiencing. Either way, these difficulties can make functioning that much more difficult. Now, let’s take a look at some of the impacts of SAD on physical health:

            -weight gain- lethargy, desire to sleep more, and carb/sugar cravings all contribute. This can have lasting impacts on those at risk for diabetes, heart disease, and thyroid issues. 

            -joint pain- For those with fibromyalgia, tick-bourne diseases such as Lyme, arthritis, lupus, etc., winter can be excruciating. We as humans also just have less natural desire to move around in the winter, because it’s way better to stay indoors where it’s warm and bright, which can increase pain. This can be super frustrating to individuals who are used to a more active lifestyle, which can increase hopelessness, frustration, moodiness, and in extreme cases, suicidality. Check on your friends, help them shovel, and make extra effort to connect with those you love whom are struggling, even if it’s not in person (I will get more into natural remedies in next week’s blog). 

            -Headaches- lack of light, wanting to sleep, dietary changes all create the recipe for headaches!

            -other sleep disturbances- because it gets darker earlier, we expose ourselves to more unnatural/blue light after the sun has gone down, especially with technology. This can severely impact sleep (I’ll discuss this more next week as well). Sleep disturbance can cause further weight gain and lethargy during the day, which impacts all areas of functioning and over time, raises cortisol levels in the blood and creates massive health issues.

 

While many doctors recommend medications, I will get into natural remedies and some of the strategies I use to combat the fatigue and moodiness next week! Please stay tuned, and if any of this sounds like you, know that you’re not alone!

 

Rebecca L. Toner, MA, LPC

Freer of Souls. Connector to Purpose. Healer of Lives.

Rebecca Toner, MA, LPC is a group private practice owner, EMDR therapist and consultant-in-training, and a life coach operating out of Plainville, CT. She specializes in treating clients with chronic attachment trauma and dissociation, and has passion in working with coaching clients who are learning how to reclaim their power after processing trauma.

Rebecca Toner, MA, LPC is a group private practice owner, EMDR therapist and consultant-in-training, and a life coach operating out of Plainville, CT. She specializes in treating clients with chronic attachment trauma and dissociation, and has passion in working with coaching clients who are learning how to reclaim their power after processing trauma.

How Therapy Helps Unlearn Procedural Learning

Previously in a social media post, I touched very briefly about procedural learning and its implications with trauma. I realize that can sound like a death sentence, and I wanted the chance to explain a little more as someone who works with this material every day. Basically, procedural learning can work both ways- negative things can be unlearned, and then new learning can be put in its place. 

For a solid example and recap of how general procedural learning works, follow this link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFzDaBzBlL0

 

As we become adults, our brains are less plastic than they were when we were kids, meaning it’s somewhat harder to learn new things because our brains are fully formed. Basically, due to our ages as adults, there’s more information to sift through and unlearn. There has to be more time to reinforce that which we know, which means the negative procedural learning of trauma patterns have had more time to be ingrained into our brains.

 

How does the process of unlearning procedural learning begin? Well, we do it small ways fairly often on our own. When we’re trying to do something one way and it doesn’t work, we try a new sequence or new approach until we are able to achieve the results we want.

 

Like the guy in the backwards brain bike video, our brains need time to make new connections. As with the man in the video, this can take months, or even years, with daily practice. The same principles apply in therapy when addressing anxiety and trauma.

 

In sessions, I generally frame it like this: I like to identify a moment when a client had a panic/anxiety attack that had them feeling triggered. We then break down, moment-by-moment, what triggered the reaction and what the steps are to their reaction buildup. We look for patterns, and we discuss which parts feel the worst or most outside of the client’s control. Then, depending on the client’s treatment plan and our already established goals, we either do some sort of talk therapy to identify possible shifts in thinking and behavior that can be made while the client is still feeling like they can manage their response to the trigger. The other option I use is EMDR to reprocess the trigger and the feeling of not being in control. The eye movements in EMDR (more information at www.emdria.org) can help make new neural connections to change where certain procedural memories are stored in the brain, so that the memories can be recalled with an appropriate amount of feeling in a voluntary basis as opposed to involuntary and disproportionate reactions from re-living a trauma.

 

With something like attachment trauma, which is where I specialize, the procedural learning of the trauma reaction (anxiety, dissociation, physical reactions) often happens before the age at which a child is able to speak, and long before they can articulate what they are experiencing. This is usually before the corpus callossum is developed enough for the child to be able to self-soothe. You can imagine that the same patterns throughout that child’s lifetime can create a long, difficult, but very possible road for unlearning reactions to triggers. This process is extremely difficult, but the payoff is beyond worthwhile. It takes patience, daily practice outside of therapy appointments, strong rapport with a good clinician, solid natural supports, and the biggest undertaking of all for those who have attachment trauma- extra kindness toward oneself throughout the entire process.

Procedural learning is just that- learning. While it may take a long time and lots of patience, it can be unlearned and then re-learned. It should be noted that adults often become frustrated during the process because they forget that they are trying to unlearn one thing and re-learn something else simultaneously. I just want you to know, dear reader, that it is NEVER too late, and there is no issue that is “too far gone” if you’re willing to commit to healing and creating a strong relationship with the right therapist. If you’re ready to learn something new that feels more empowering than your usual response to triggers, if you’re ready to commit to a new practice that includes lots of self-love and patience, reach out to a therapist!

Rebecca L. Toner, MA, LPC

Freer of Souls. Connector to Purpose. Healer of Lives.

Rebecca Toner, MA, LPC is a group private practice owner, EMDR therapist and consultant-in-training, and a life coach operating out of Plainville, CT. She specializes in treating clients with chronic attachment trauma and dissociation, and has passion in working with coaching clients who are learning how to reclaim their power after processing trauma.

Rebecca Toner, MA, LPC is a group private practice owner, EMDR therapist and consultant-in-training, and a life coach operating out of Plainville, CT. She specializes in treating clients with chronic attachment trauma and dissociation, and has passion in working with coaching clients who are learning how to reclaim their power after processing trauma.