Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a seasonal depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, it usually occurs in the late fall and early winter and then gets better during the spring and summer. In order to be diagnosed with SAD, one must have major depression symptoms at least two years in a row during a specific season, and the depressive episodes must occur more often in those seasons than during other times of the year.
SAD has the same symptoms as major depression. Feelings of hopelessness, low energy and social withdrawal can all signal a form of depression. Experiencing SAD in the winter is specifically connected to hypersomnia, overeating and weight gain.
“I was medically diagnosed after going to counseling for anxiety problems,” Annie Herr, a freshman at Ohio University, said. “I took a long 'quiz' with different symptoms and questions about how much I experience each emotion. After that, the results came in and my counselor told me I exhibited the signs of anxiety and seasonal depression.”
For some individuals who already suffer from depression and anxiety, SAD can exacerbate these symptoms.
“I am not officially medically diagnosed but my therapist and I have recognized the symptoms for years and I understand that my anxiety and depression flare up in the winter months,” said Kami Baker, a freshman at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
If you are already treated for depression, or want to try preventative measures to keep your mood steady, there are many types of therapy available. It's important to remember, however, that SAD can be as crippling as any other mental disorder, and seeing a medical professional if you don't already can be a very important step to feeling better.
According to Mental Health America, in any given year, five percent of the population will experience SAD. Risk factors include being female, as four in five people diagnosed will be women. Those living further away from the equator are also more likely to experience it.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, young adults have higher rates of SAD diagnoses than older adults.
“By the time the students reached their senior year of high school, one in 20 had full-fledged SAD...” Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, the first doctor to diagnose SAD, said. “Although college students have not been studied systematically, my guess is that they probably suffer in higher numbers.”
In fact, there are some reasons college students are more likely to suffer from SAD. As students are learning how to make their own schedules and live as adults, their sleeping habits may change and their workload may become overwhelming. According to Rosenthal, these are things that trigger stress, and, paired with the lack of seasonal vitamin D, sunlight, and time outdoors, can lead to SAD.
“I think a lot of people will probably experience SAD for the first time during their freshman year,” Baker said. “I say to reach out to professionals, see if you need medicine or therapy and find coping strategies that work for you. Don't make bad decisions because you're feeling depressed. Even though it's extremely hard, be proactive about your situation. Hold yourself to a standard of care and appreciation.”
The specific causes of SAD are unclear. According to the Mayo Clinic, reduced exposure to sunlight causes a drop in serotonin levels, resulting in a drop in mood. The change in sunlight can also affect biological clocks and heighten melatonin levels, which both play a role in sleep schedules and mood. SAD isn’t just a “winter blues” situation.
“I hate when people discredit the validity of SAD because they think it’s normal to be a little less energetic in the winter,” Herr said.
Treatments for SAD can vary. A common way to relieve symptoms is phototherapy, or bright light therapy. This works by spending time (usually around half an hour upon waking) each day in front of a SAD light, which works by putting out an amount of balanced spectrum light in a measured amount. The light enters through the retina and and transfers impulses to the hypothalamus, which regulates the body's natural clock. The result is similar to spending time outdoors on a spring day.
According to Harvard Medical School, these lights "provide 10,000 lux ('lux' is a measure of light intensity). That’s about 100 times brighter than usual indoor lighting; a bright sunny day is 50,000 lux or more." To use the light, "You need to have your eyes open, but don’t look [directly] at the light. Many people use the time to read a newspaper, book, or magazine, or catch up on work."
According to the Mayo Clinic, light therapy has been shown to be effective in up to 85 percent of diagnosed cases. When it isn’t helpful, other known treatments for depression like aromatherapy and antidepressants can also be helpful.
“I spend as much time as I can in sunny rooms and outside,” Herr said. “I have to force myself to go out and be with friends, but being with them helps me to get out of my funk. This year, I’m trying essential oils to help with relaxing and boosting my energy levels.”
Coping skills are different for everyone, and if you feel like you’re experiencing SAD, be sure to try different things until you find something that works.
“I would suggest experimenting,” Elizabeth Robinson, a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin said. “If you find your thoughts get to you when you're alone, hang out with friends. If you try to fill up your days with extra work but that makes you anxious or even more depressed, then it's time to switch tactics. Most of all, find help: shared sadness is half sadness, but shared happiness is double happiness.”
On the bright side (pun intended), SAD is recurring, so once you know it affects you, there is a chance to prevent it in following years. The Mayo Clinic suggests starting light therapy, or other forms of treatment like exercise or regular meditation, before your usual onset time. This can drastically help you lessen or avoid the nasty effects of SAD.
Remember that like any mental illness, SAD is completely normal and treatable. Just like any illness, it’s all about finding what treatment works for you. If you or someone you know is struggling this winter, or ever, refer to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America for resources and additional support.
Please keep in mind that this information is not an adequate substitute for seeking attention from a medical professional.
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