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Wellness Tip: Finding The Light in Seasonal Affective Disorder

Adrian Infernus

Do you feel like your mood dips severely during winter? Do you notice changes in your attitude, have trouble sleeping, crave more sleep, or have changes in appetite? You might suffer from seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). 

SAD falls into the same psychiatric category as clinical depression. It was theorized by South African psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal in 1984, with early surveys finding some people felt extra blue during the shorter, darker, colder months of the year. In the U.S., northern states tend to experience the highest rates of seasonal depression, with one study finding incidences at around 10% at the latitude of New Hampshire. 

Symptoms can manifest in a few ways. Psychologists notice mood swings, hypersomnia (the desire to sleep more), increased or decreased appetite, and difficulty concentrating. Patients typically are low in energy, often seeking a nap in the middle of the day or struggling to get out of bed in the morning. They may eat unhealthy meals, taking in more carbohydrates than protein. It’s compared to a bear’s hibernation behavior.

Photo Courtesy Anthony Tran

The condition usually starts with people in their 20s and 30s. It can also be a warning sign of major depressive disorder, where people experience depression year-round. SAD is also more common in women, but it’s unclear why. While winter tends to be the worst period for this disease, 10% of patients show depressive symptoms in summer. It affects people differently. 

It’s important to understand not everyone suffers from SAD — it’s tricky to diagnose. You may get moderately moodier during winter, but that doesn’t always constitute a clinical diagnosis.

People quickly rebound from it when spring and summer come around. They become much livelier. Sunlight improves our mental health, especially for those with depressive disorders. 

There’s no scientific reason why SAD affects some people but not all. Some psychologists believe it’s an inherited condition. Often, a parent or grandparent passed it down to the next generation. According to Medline, people with relatives with other mental health issues like schizophrenia or bipolar disorders are more likely to develop it. Whether it is hereditary requires more research. 

If you think you are experiencing seasonal depression, a professional diagnosis is needed. The good news is there are a few therapeutic options to combat it. One is antidepressants, but again, that would be determined by a doctor after diagnosis.

Another method is light therapy, where a bright light box simulates sunlight. Patients can put their heads in the box to increase serotonin levels. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy is also an option. Working with a therapist can be very beneficial and help you develop strategies to cope with your condition. The University of Vermont has found cognitive behavioral therapy to be as effective as light therapy. 

Photo Courtesy Cristina Gottardi

Some lifestyle changes can also ease SAD symptoms. Occupying your time during the winter months is critical. Some indoor activities include journaling, going to the gym, joining an indoor sports league, and cooking. Socializing or talking with friends can also be comforting.

Exposure to sunshine helps, so booking a vacation may offer some relief. You don’t need to go to a tropical island; take a trip to California, Arizona, Texas, or Louisiana. Choose a destination that isn’t too cold or hot but with lots of sun.