Anxiety related to the change in the light-- how can I handle this better?
August 11, 2012 4:54 PM   Subscribe

Just before fall every year I get this overwhelming anxiety attack that is about the change in the quality of the light-- the sunlight gets this "clear" quality that genuinely makes me feel as though the world is about to crash down on me. This usually puts me in bed for three days and informs my mood for at least two weeks, and it's textbook anxiety stuff. But I wonder-- is there a name for this particular source of anxiety? Is there a framework I can use to deal with it? Because it's so intense for me that all medications fail and even though it always resolves itself, I need a better way to deal with this annual issue.

If this question seems oddly-timed, it's because I live very far north (up by the 60th parallel) and so it's probably closer to fall where I am than where you are. Prior to living here I was in the Pacific Northwest for my whole life, and I had it there too when fall was getting close. This is not about a dread of fall or winter, it's about a sense of dread that's 100% about the change in sunlight.

Oddly enough, I often get this in the spring too, which I can't really explain, but it also has to do with the change in the light. And oddly too, this year I find myself unable to just lay paralyzed in bed-- instead I'm pace-y and keep trying to find projects, none of which are relaxing to me at all. But the issue is still with the clearness of the sunlight, and the impending sense of doom that I feel as a result. I try to go easy on myself, and my husband is ultra-supportive and tries to make me as comfortable as possible, but I'm really tired of being so afraid of nothing for so long (almost two decades now), and so consistently.

If it matters, I'm bipolar (possibly recently graduated to Type 1, differs from one psychiatrist to the next). I take lithium, lamotrigine (Lamictal), Seroquel, Tryptan, clonidine (beta blocker) and Abilify (this one is new, and may be part of the pacing of this year's anxiety attack iteration). I can't take benzos because they were part of my addiction (5 years clean). I do get less major anxiety attacks randomly, and the occasional acute panic attack, but not as frequently as before I was meds-compliant.

Still, I'm pretty damn functional. It's just this highly predictable and disturbing annual thing that gets me.

So my questions are: do you get this? Is there a name for it? Is there a way to get through it that's better than shaking and pacing-- like, things I can tell myself?

I'm looking for answers from personal experience, not advice to get a therapist. I really believe that the collective mind here can provide me with a better range of real-world coping mechanisms for this one issue. If you need clarification on what I mean by the light, please let me know; I'm just assuming that this must be a (relatively) common thing.
posted by mireille to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is triggered by the way the light changes.
You can get full spectrum lightbulbs to use in your home. They help many people with this problem. Plus I find they make rooms feel warmer; when I had only one, I experimentally moved it to different rooms and I always found myself spending the most time in the room with the full-spectrum light.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 4:58 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oops, bad not-linky person!
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 4:59 PM on August 11, 2012

Yes, sounds like SAD. Be aware that there is also Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder - that appears during spring/summer and is/can be more prominent in people with Bipolar. It sounds like you get both SAD and RSAD.
posted by Sassyfras at 5:06 PM on August 11, 2012

I have a sunlight-simulator lamp in my office to deal with the lack of sunlight here during the long winters-- it works for that but could it work for days when there is still plenty of light? The sun still doesn't set until about 10PM up here this time of year. Seems counter-intuitive, but I could try it.
posted by mireille at 5:08 PM on August 11, 2012

I agree it's Seasonal Affective Disorder. I'm a bit further north than you right now (63rd parallel) and I am noticing this as well -- mostly anxiety and this sort of vague sense of unease -- and more so than I ever felt in Colorado. I discovered that cutting out alcohol entirely helped me a great deal. I slipped and had two glasses of wine with dinner the other night and that feeling of dread returned quickly (tears, pacing, faint and morbid daydreams). Eating fresh green salads has also been rather comforting.
posted by mochapickle at 5:09 PM on August 11, 2012

I know exactly what you mean but it gives me migraines, not anxiety. Spring and fall, like clockwork I get a big massive migraine. I wear sunglasses pretty much 24/7 and that helps but yeah, I think its the amount of change of light or something.
posted by fshgrl at 5:11 PM on August 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

mireille, I remember reading at some point that it's because the sunlight is different in the winter. Less of something important in it. Thus a full spectrum light that has all the good stuff.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 5:12 PM on August 11, 2012

Btw, I don't suffer from SAD at all. I'm disgustingly chipper all winter long even when I lived in the North north.
posted by fshgrl at 5:13 PM on August 11, 2012

I know this too! But instead of anxiety, I get a strange, trippy feeling of sorrow combined with joy. I don't have any advice for how to cope, but I am another person who has a similar experience to yours.
posted by Coatlicue at 5:16 PM on August 11, 2012 [7 favorites]

Yup. I get an intense feeling of impending doom, combined with excitement and anticipation. I don't care too consider too deeply what that says about me.

And I have experienced this at the 39th and 61st, equally.
posted by charmcityblues at 5:20 PM on August 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I love autumn and find that time of year, and the light, incredibly beautiful. yet it visits that exact sense of dread on me too. Seasonal Affective Disorder!!! you want real sunlight as much as you can get, full spectrum lights in your house as much as you can set up. take a good multi-vitamin, get as much good exercise as you can. music can be a powerful mood influence too, so queue up whatever energizes and cheers you and play it LOUD!!!
posted by supermedusa at 5:48 PM on August 11, 2012

Joan Didion wrote a book about the loss of her daughter that uses this changing light as a theme. it's called Blue Nights.

Have you ever taken a trip to a different climate around the time that this anxiety strikes? I wonder if it would scramble up your unconscious expectations and circumvent the problem.
posted by xo at 5:58 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know very little about SAD. My first thought about this, though, would be to get some amber-type sunglasses. Remember Blue Blockers? Or Ambervision? I loved those things. They brightened my mood on any day and made everything feel crisper and cooler. I would get knockoffs for $10 a pair. I don't know where to get them now. I would love to have some.
posted by skypieces at 6:37 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Me too! I think it's a combination of change in the light and associating it with going back to school as a child. Sad that obligations of school are ahead/exciting to be starting with a clean slate/clean notebooks. Heading into the comfort of cooler weather and my birthday in October but then too cold weather and too much darkness.

Poignant ambivalence/bittersweet.
posted by vitabellosi at 6:37 PM on August 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'm taking Vit D3 per doctor's orders, hope it helps.
posted by vitabellosi at 6:39 PM on August 11, 2012

I have different anxiety triggers, but it seems like people have given you a lot of good light-specific advice. I just wanted to say that it's okay to just pamper yourself, let yourself feel anxious, do fewer anxiety triggering things, take more baths (or whatever works for you), and just try and take it easy for a few weeks.
posted by Margalo Epps at 7:27 PM on August 11, 2012

I get this every year. The thing I hate the most about the winter is the quality of light and the direction that it comes from (the south, rather than directly overhead), so when I first really notice that the sun is moving farther down in the sky I really start to dread what's coming.

SAD itself is easier to deal with because you can get your lamp on, but the best way to deal with this weird fall anxiety is to make yourself look forward all things fall.

I really try to throw myself into it. Spicy fall smells in the house, fall themed baked goods, soups and casseroles, fall decorations, planning fall projects like knitting, holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving, and pursuits like watching leaves change, visiting apple orchards, etc.
posted by elsietheeel at 7:42 PM on August 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't know if this could be of any practical help at all, but perhaps another way of thinking about it might give you some comfort: it strikes me that you're reacting as if you were a plant. An annual plant about to die, or a deciduous plant about to drop its leaves, has good reason to "feel" a sense of impending doom with the change of light that comes near the end of summer. Before we were animals, we were plants -- maybe there's a trigger for some chemical process buried in our genes that can still say, "light's changing, time to die now." But you're an evergreen, right?
posted by Corvid at 7:47 PM on August 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

I don't have any diagnosed psychological disorders and have never been treated for SAD, though sometimes I think it's a good idea. But I know exactly what you mean - though we don't usually see that light for another month at my latitude. I have always chalked it up to association - it's end of summer, autumnal light that calls up all the decline, death, withering and cold that are happening in the natural world at the end of the year. Usually that ends up being a nostalgic/wistful time for me, not fullblown anxiety, but certainly those reflections. I'm pretty attuned to subtle moments that come up as seasons shift and settle in, and though I love summer and don't welcome fall, I've worked it all into sort of a worldview - to everything, there is a season, and all that. I've gotten a lot out of studying cross-cultural traditions and festivals that come about at different times of year, but particularly early fall - Sept/Oct - is full of them in the Northern hemisphere. It's harvest time, abundant and joyful, but that carries with it the sense of preparing to hunker down, stewarding your wealth of today to care for yourself over the cold months to come. I've found a lot of solace and perspective in the traditions of both New and Old World peoples as they've faced this time, and it does build your confidence that you can face it too, learn its lessons, and do all things in their time. And be back to celebrate the return of spring - because I'm sure since you can notice these small shifts in fall, you are also the first to perceive the change to warmth in the sun on those first February and March days when things shift back.
posted by Miko at 8:41 PM on August 11, 2012 [7 favorites]

This is such a long shot that I hesitate to mention it, but since you said you used to live in the PNW, I thought I would ask: how many years has it been happening? The reason I ask is because I live in Portland and I strongly associate a specific type of crisp, clear, sunny Autumn light and weather with 9/11.

That was a perfect clear sunny day here, and the images from New York had the same still, bright blue & sunny quality that we had on the West Coast, too. Every so often in August and September we'll have a day where the weather is so similar to that, and it gives me a sense of creeping dread. I love the Fall, so it's weird - sometimes I'll forget why I'm feeling like the world is coming to end, and then I remember. For me, because I know the source of the dread, I can sort of talk myself out of it, I guess.
posted by peep at 8:52 PM on August 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

The first thing that thought of, like many others, was SAD.

On a side note, I think I know the quality of light that you mean; I have a similar thing that I call "apocalyptic light" because that's just what seems right. It doesn't frighten me, though; I think it's pretty, like lightning is pretty even though it could be scary.

Something that occurs to me, too, is that weird qualities of light often indicate changing weather patterns- storms. It's probably natural to get a bit antsy so if you're anxiety-prone, it could be a trigger. Maybe doing concrete stuff like shutting your windows, making sure you're secure, would be soothing?
posted by windykites at 9:10 PM on August 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I marked some "best answers" but they really all are-- knowing that others feel this way helps so much too. Really thoughtful answers, everyone, and I appreciate it. Will try reframing as an acceptance of the change of season, let myself off easy while it's happening, and bolster with my daylight lamp (all gross oversimplifications of the advice I'm taking from you here, but you know what I mean). Thank you.
posted by mireille at 9:11 PM on August 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've always experienced this, too, although for me it's anticipatory rather than anxiety. I notice it less living in San Francisco than in New Hampshire.
posted by rtha at 9:35 PM on August 11, 2012

That thin, fine golden light of autumn is a huge alert for me, not that it's the light that does it (that I know of) but rather that it is at that time of year that I have taken off manic. It's not so much scary to me but it's a warning that I'd best heed, be aware, to be on the lookout. I don't fly off every year and I surely have had manic runs at other times of year also but these are the ones that seem to really, um, go places.

I've got my shrink onboard with this, if/when I'm in therapy I clue the therapist in on this on the first visit, one of my sisters knows and considers this, the close relationships in my life, both my mentor and those I mentor, they are aware of it, so they can let me know if they see something going on. It's a pain in the ass -- this manic depression thing is humbling sometimes -- but rather that people I trust be aware of it than I take off into that fine golden light yet again ...

When things do go left-handed, I have the blessing of my shrink to knock it all down in any way I can, and she has prescribed enough mood stabilizers that I've generally got the goods to get back to earth. Sleep is imperative -- once I start to blowing past sleep I get into deep shit real, real fast. While I never met a downer I didn't love when I was drinking/drugging, I'm somehow able to use klonopin "responsibly" if the need arises, I don't get addicty about it at all, though again, I keep my cards face up on the table around those who I'd want to know; secrets grow in the dark, etc and etc.

It actually really is a beautiful light -- it reminds me of high quality holiday gift wrap in a way, it's pretty and light and fine and golden, if it was music I'd want to listen to it, for sure. Though I'd want to listen to the music of the sirens, too, so there's that; I'd just best make sure I'm tied to the mast, right? Just be aware, is all.

Good luck.
posted by dancestoblue at 10:42 PM on August 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

Damnit, wanted to include that sometimes the voice of John Cash comes through when I consider manic depression in this time of year, one verse from the song "I Walk The Line", Cash singing in that gravel voice of his, this one verse with just one bitty word changed a little bit and it's perfect:

As sure as night is dark and day is light
I keep you on my mind both day and night
And happiness mania I've known proves that it's right
Because you're mine,
I walk the line

posted by dancestoblue at 11:00 PM on August 11, 2012

For me it's a specific light in summer - the light, the heat and the humidity. I always get a little odd that time of year, but if/when that combo hits I am an anxious horrible mess. It took me years to work it out, and longer to work out that it's a specific trigger from a specific traumatic incident.
posted by geek anachronism at 2:40 AM on August 12, 2012

I don't have anything to add, but William Faulkner knew what you were talking about:
". . .in August in Mississippi there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall, it’s cool, there’s a lambence, a soft, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times. It might have fauns and satyrs and the gods and—from Greece, from Olympus in it somewhere. It lasts just for a day or two, then it’s gone. . . . a luminosity older than our Christian civilization.Light in August
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:58 AM on August 12, 2012 [10 favorites]

I know exactly what you're talking about - it doesn't give me anxiety but it does depress me a little bit for some reason. For me it has to do with the associations I have to the changing seasons. A sense of time passing, a sense of going back to school and the loss of freedom associated with that, the loss of summer, and the sense that time marches on no matter what we can do about it.

I don't know. I've been out of school for years and the early fall days still make me sad. Can't quite find the beauty in them yet. It's very melancholy for me.
posted by christiehawk at 9:01 AM on August 12, 2012

It's almost exactly a year since this was posted and I've thought about it several times over the past couple of days as I noticed the change in light. This morning was particularly bad, with a distinct sense of impending doom. Winter is coming.

I hope you are doing all right.
posted by elsietheeel at 11:14 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

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