Me and my SAD lamp: the potential placebo effect that might just be working 6 months ago

Me and my SAD lamp: the potential placebo effect that might just be working

April is the cruellest month.

Except it's not.

It's actually November, December, and January. Maybe even February, if you're lucky.

As anyone who feels the oppressive, dark, pull of the winter months will tell, it's peak season for feeling just a little bit shit.

Demotivation. Exhaustion. General inability to handle things in a manner that would usually come swift, easy, and without concern.

With the days ending at 4pm comes the vague unwillingness to operate past close of business. At least not in a capacity that involves anything other than going home, getting into bed, and eating a kilogram of pesto pasta.

The second the clocks go forward I begin operating akin to desperate Joyce Byers in season one of Stranger Things. Just without the missing son and the recurrent intensity.

Fairy lights over the bed. Fairy lights wrapped around the mirror. Fairy lights illuminating the way to the toilet, wrapping around the bowl itself, flashing candidly with each flush administered.

(The latter is regrettably not present within my current setup, but oh, if it was.)

SAD lamps, as they are most commonly known, are marketed as a way of brightening up your days during the dark, dreary winter months.

Including an array of colours, sounds, and sunrise settings, the lamp provides a means of artificial replacement light, brightening from low intensity once it switches on to a level of brightness that is almost akin to the actual sun rising. 

(Something it refuses to do until about 11.15am during Irish winters. No, this is not an exaggeration. I am not being dramatic.)

Despite being thought to affect one in 15 people in Ireland, the exact cause of SAD - and the most efficient way to tackle it - remains the subject of ongoing research.

Dr Arun Thiyagarajan, medical director for health clinics with Bupa UK, says that the condition is most commonly associated with a lack of sunlight during the shorter, dark winter months.

"This can cause a disruption to someone’s body clock, mood and wellbeing," he says.

"Some people may need more light than others to be able to function properly. Light triggers the part of the brain that controls sleep, appetite, sex drive, temperature and mood.

"So if you’re not getting enough light, your wellbeing can be impacted and these every day functions can slow down - or stop."

The first time I heard people talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder was three Christmases ago.

I stumbled upon a deep and detailed Twitter hole of users explaining their aversion to the winter months, the painfully short days, and the ever depleting levels of energy, motivation, and general unhappiness they were experiencing.

I counted myself lucky that I had never dealt with a similar seasonal-related illness myself.

Sure, I disliked Christmas because it was often anti-climactic. The cold pissed me off, the rain ruined my day, the feeling that you had lost half an evening before it had even begun was frustrating. But that was pretty much as far as it ever went.

I hadn't been feeling hopeless, as so many people reported. I hadn't struggled to get out of bed in the morning.

A friend of mine told me last year that SAD made her feel hyper vigilant and anxious, like leaving her house every day was a risk she shouldn't be taking. She sometimes struggled to complete simple tasks, like showering or brushing her hair.

Suddenly, the small things, the things that should have been easy, were taking it out of her.

There's a difference between Seasonal Affective Disorder and what has otherwise become known as The Winter Blues.

One is a mental disorder that can restrict a person's ability to function. The other - although sounding quite trivial - is a less intense version of SAD, one that is not as debilitating, but can still lead to a person feeling demotivated, tired, and depressed.

I don't know which one I've got, if either. Maybe I'm just pissed off that it's been raining non-stop for the past 27 days of my life. Maybe I'm frustrated that I can't stay up past 11.30pm unless I'm out drinking.

Maybe the end of the year, the promise of the new decade, the pressure that comes with feeling under-accomplished and burnt out is finally creeping on me.

Maybe I'm just drained - like the majority of my friends, colleagues, and people I know.

"Yeah, it's just a weird time of year for people," is the line of the season. And it is, too.

It's a time of change, a time of panic, a time when everyone's feeling like shit except for those lucky folk among us who aren't - which of course, somehow makes it all that bit worse.

And amidst all of the exhaustion, frustrations, and general lack of motivation, it seems almost baffling that a solitary source of light timed to switch on and simulate a sunrise at 6.15am should provide any sense of relief.

Whether it's the placebo effect, a mild form of light therapy, or my own unconscious wishful thinking that it'll actually make any semblance of difference, doesn't really matter.

Because it does, somehow. At least a little bit.