A look at Seasonal Affective Disorder
By Bhargavi Venkataraman
When the days get shorter and the wind gets chillier, people seem to want to stay in bed just a little longer. It becomes harder to get up in the morning and there is a sense of blueness in the air. It turns out that the timing is not a coincidence and these symptoms might point to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This is a specific subtype of depression that is related to the changing seasons. For most people, it starts annually in the fall and continues well into the winter season. This may mean that as the cold and snowy weather stretches into February and beyond, some of you might undergo sustained SAD.
The American Psychiatric Association officially classifies SAD as a version of major depressive disorder with seasonal variations. Accordingly, symptoms of this disorder include mood changes along with symptoms of depression. I will specifically focus on winter SAD for the purposes of this article. These symptoms will include:
- Carb cravings and weight gain
- Drastic tiredness
- Feelings of despair and despondency
- Difficulties with concentrating
- Feelings of irritation
- Feelings of weight in limbs
- Withdrawal from social activities
- Issues with oversleeping
- Thoughts of death and suicide
There is still a lot of questions around the causes, but it is thought that the reduced sun exposure during this time might trigger the condition if you are already disposed to getting it. Some other reasons include:
Biological Clock Change: There is a shift in the biological clock which is responsible for modulating your mood, sleep, and hormones when there is inadequate sun exposure. This might result in you being unable to adjust to the new schedule and result in lethargy.
Brain Chemical Imbalance: If at risk for SAD already, you might have a previous deficiency of serotonin (the happy chemical) activity. Sunlight helps to regulate serotonin so the insufficient sunlight during this time can further depreciate your serotonin levels, resulting in depression.
Vitamin D Deficiency: Vitamin D is another contributor to serotonin levels. The sun helps produce Vitamin D, so sunlight deficiency also results in vitamin D deficiency during the winter, ultimately reducing your serotonin level and worsening your depressive symptoms.
Melatonin Increase: Melatonin is a hormone which is produced in response to darkness and regulates sleep and mood. During the winter time, the lack of sunlight results in overproduction of melatonin for some. This can increase feelings of drowsiness and apathy.
Bad Outlook on Winter: There have been some research showing that those with SAD often associate stress, anxiety, and negative thoughts with the winter season. It is not clear if this is a contributing factor or an effect of seasonal depression.
There are a couple ways in which you can manage and treat SAD. Two common suggestions involve increasing your exposure to light, either through spending more time outdoors or near a window or by engaging in light therapy where you expose yourself to a special light for a particular amount of time each day. This is to manage the previously mentioned symptoms that occur due to insufficient sunlight during the winter. Alternatively, there are also some more traditional options for the treatment of depression such as psychotherapy and antidepressants. These will help remedy your distorted self-concept and interpersonal relationships skills and offset the chemical imbalance occurring in SAD, respectively.
There are also other everyday things you can do to better your wellbeing as a whole. These include eating healthy and balanced meals, exercising regularly in a way that you are comfortable, talking to someone (could be a trusted confidante or a healthcare provider), and limiting consumption of alcohol and/or drugs. It is also important to remember to take things one step at a time. You cannot just get out of your depressive state in one day or with one turn. It is a slow process but remember that you are not alone and take it day-by-day!