What to know about Seasonal Affective Disorder
by Grace Bonato
It is easy to prefer staying snuggled up in bed all day instead of embarking out in the world when it's dark and cold.
Getting up, making coffee and starting a normal day should be easy - but not for someone who suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder.
A simple shot of caffeine is not enough.
Their moods are taken over by depressive and apathetic thoughts that even the idea of getting out of bed seems impossible.
And despite SAD being a common occurrence, it is often overlooked and untreated.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as “seasonal depression" occurs during the changing of the seasons and affects around 10 million Americans each year.
Although it can occur in any season, SAD is most common during fall and winter as colder temps and a decrease in sunlight contribute to a depressed mood.
Those who experience seasonal depression generally feel lonely and sluggish, and the toll on their mental health can also wreak havoc on their general health.
What are the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD includes a number of symptoms just like any other form of depression, including loss of interest in activities, weight and appetite changes, sleeping too much or sleeping too little, and thoughts of death or suicide.
Often called the “winter blues,” people of any age can be diagnosed with this disorder, and while it affects everyone differently, it can have some very disruptive effects.
Kate Weeda, a clinical psychiatrist and author, explains that the most common symptoms for people experiencing seasonal depression include being lethargic and apathetic.
“Saying you know, I used to love to go play with my friends after school. Now I just want to come home and lay in my bed and look through Instagram,” says Weeda.
Weeda also notes how SAD can affect thinking processes and overall productivity.
“Having negative darker thoughts than they normally would in the summer,” she says, adding that a “difficulty concentrating and focusing” starts making school harder.
Susan Banks, whose son suffers from seasonal depression, described how the winter months would affect her son.
“Well his sleeping increased a great deal. He also had much less interest in participating in activities,” she said, adding that her son became more secluded and lonely. “It was just a matter of being pretty isolated in his room and not being around other people.”
Banks tried to propose various activities that she thought might be appealing, but it was hard to get her son to participate in them.
“I encouraged talking and conversation, just general socialization, which was very difficult for him,” she said.
Lily, a college student at the College of Charleston diagnosed with SAD, said she would become extra anxious and depressed when the winter season rolled around.
“I feel like the days kind of just collide together,” she said. "It happens in specific months and the most common would be the winter months when it starts to get colder and darker.”
Why is seasonal depression most common in the winter?
Depression is a very complex disease and it is caused by a chemical imbalance in which chemicals are working both inside and outside the nerve cells to control a person's overall mood.
Seasonal depression is just one of many depression/mood disorders that results from this chemical imbalance.
Winter brings a hectic holiday season that often results in increased stress and fatigue. Combining that with the decrease in daylight, the human body tends to deregulate out of some of its normal processes that help our moods.
“Oftentimes people who have depression - you know, kind of a low grade depression - their regular depression will kind of triple during the winter,” says Weeda.
The reduction of light causes the body to experience lower levels of serotonin due to its natural circadian rhythms being disturbed. For brains that already struggle with enough serotonin to maintain a healthy mood, the “winter blues'' exacerbate the issue.
“I noticed that at different times of the year and the beginning of winter and late fall that depression would become more noticeable as there was less light,” Banks said.
Lily’s seasonal depression affects her differently depending on where she is at this time of year.
“If I'm in Charleston, then it begins to fade at the beginning of February because the sun starts to set later and it gets a little bit warmer,” she says. “But I’d say when I'm in Boston, it doesn't start to fade until the end of March and the beginning of April.”
For a person without depression - even seasonal depression - the colder and darker times of the year can still affect mood. Many of us note having less energy and maybe feeling less positive when the days are generally darker, longer and colder.
And there’s a lot of actual science behind that.
Vitamin D activates an enzyme called tryptophan hydroxylase 2 (TPH2) and converts it into serotonin.
“So vitamin D is a big contributor because we get that from the sun and when we're not getting sun, we often get depressed and anxious,” says Weeda.
Banks certainly noticed this to be true with her son.
“As there was more sunlight, I noticed less of the seasonal depression,” she said.
Maintain healthy diet, exercise
When it comes to treatment and tips for Seasonal Affective Disorder, there are a lot of things that can be done to control and treat this type of depression.
This disorder can affect anyone, but according to the National Mental Health Association, most patients tend to be women in their late 20s.
There are a number of ways seasonal depression can be managed, including cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressant medications, and even just a dose of the outdoors.
One of the most basic ways to prevent seasonal depression from getting out of control is eating healthy and getting a lot of exercise.
Banks says the usual things that were recommended for her son included regular exercise, maintaining a balanced diet and staying away from alcohol and drugs.
Weeda confirmed that healthy meals can do a lot.
“You know, a good varied diet with salmon and leafy greens and lots of fruits and vegetables and trying to eat seasonally, so that you get as many nutrients as you possibly can,” says Weeda.
Engaging in the outdoors and getting sunlight is also a very important tip for overcoming seasonal depression.
“And certainly exercise, connecting with people, trying to try to do stuff after school because that's what happens when it's dark at 4:45,” Weeda pointed out. “Kids come home and they just want to watch TV and not do anything whereas in the spring and summer they're out at the pool till you know nine o'clock at night and they're moving more and they're having more fun.”
Light therapy a great remedy for seasonal depression
Light therapy is also becoming a very common method to help with seasonal depression. Since winter days are darker and longer and sometimes there is no visible sunshine, special light bulbs that expose the body to an artificial light resembling sunlight are very effective.
This light triggers the brain to release serotonin, which will improve their overall mood.
“I keep a sunlight lamp myself, so I actually have it when I'm in session all day,” Weeda says, noting they’re easily found on Amazon for a reasonable price. “They're like 30 bucks and it's the best.”
Banks’ son was also told by his psychiatrist that sun lamp therapy would be a good way to treat his seasonal affective disorder.
“We also had, as recommended, artificial lighting, which gave off sunlight and we put it next to his bed or on the desk to make up for the lack of sunlight,” Banks said.
Lily uses therapy lights as well because her therapist recommended it for increased Vitamin D.
Especially for people with seasonal depression, it’s crucial to be aware of vitamin D levels.
“Well, I think that everybody should be tested for vitamin D by their doctor,” Weeda says. “Because that's such a simple, you know, vitamin that we need that affects our metabolism, our skin, everything including mood and anxiety.”
SAD needs more attention
Weeda also explains that it is important to know what this disorder is in order to manage and treat it.
“First off, it is knowing what it is and psychoeducation → helping them understand the signs and symptoms and then doing a good multivitamin with vitamin D, EPA and DHA,” she says.
Weeda believes it is important for people suffering from seasonal depression to see a therapist and not just assume these symptoms are normal and will easily go away.
In fact, she believes seasonal depression is not given as much attention as it should.
“I just wish there was more awareness and more understanding and I wish more teachers of elementary to college levels of school knew more about it,” says Weeda.
Banks also agrees that this disorder doesn’t get much attention.
“I don't think many people are aware of it at all,” she says. “And if they are, I think they just kind of slough it off.”