The Sorrows of Seasonal Affective Disorder (Spotlight Series #1)

By Annabelle Wang

Although seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is not heavily discussed in the mental health conversation, SAD is a common affliction worldwide. There are several misconceptions that SAD does not exist because “the weather cannot affect someone that much,” or because feeling gloomy because of the winter months is considered normal. However, SAD is more than just that; it’s a subtype of major depressive disorder, particularly emerging during the fall and increasing during the winter. The symptoms that come with SAD are experienced before going into remission as spring and summer approach. This distinction from the main umbrella that encompasses all types of major depression is essential in noting the specific symptoms and treatments for SAD.

In most cases, SAD is characterized by many symptoms also associated with other forms of depression, such as having low energy, binge eating, an excessive desire to sleep, and social withdrawal. The disorder is often triggered by the shorter days, lower temperatures, and less sunlight exposure that come with winter. Although the specific neurological cause of SAD is unknown, there are several leading theories for the cause of SAD. One such theory is known as the “phase-shift hypothesis,” the idea that the reduction in sunlight can disrupt the body’s biological clock and normal circadian rhythm and therefore reduce levels of serotonin and melatonin—hormones that regulate mood and sleep cycles, respectively.

There have been recent discussions on how birds and small animals respond to changing day lengths that may prompt alternative explanations. According to Daniel Kripke, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, melatonin strikes the hypothalamus, changing the synthesis of the thyroid hormone, which regulates many bodily processes and behaviors. Based on animal studies, the high melatonin levels after an animal wakes up can suppress the synthesis of thyroid hormone, drastically altering the animal’s appetite, energy levels, and mood. Thyroid hormones also affect serotonin levels, which studies have shown to be lowest in the winter and highest during the summer—suggesting that the actions of the serotonin and melatonin neurotransmitters are related. Though these are the most well-known mechanisms, it’s possible there are many other factors at work that can only be explained through further research.

Because mental health problems vary between people, there is no singular treatment that can be applied to everyone with SAD. However, there are several options that have been experimentally proven to help those with SAD. Medication, such as antidepressant tablets, can be effective. Therapy with a registered psychotherapist to recognize patterns and make positive changes through meditation, exercise, or a regularly scheduled lifestyle with normal sleep habits is also effective. Light therapy is also widely used, as more exposure to natural or (some) superficial light can help regulate one’s mood. For example, Rjukan inhabitants in Norway have a complex relationship with the sun. As a population, they are more likely to be negatively affected by seasonal changes. Thus, they have pushed for several solutions, including building cable cars to bring the people to the sunshine, as well as installing large mirrors known as heliostats that turn to continually reflect light from the sun down to a certain target.

Compared to the forms of treatment listed above, adopting a more positive attitude towards one’s situation can sound dismissive of the illness itself, but this form of treatment may truly help one cope with the negative symptoms of SAD. Physical factors definitely play their role in SAD, but the way in which a person reacts and copes with the illness does as well.

Author’s Note: In regards to the mental health conversation in general, it is extremely important to stay open-minded and accepting of mental situations that we ourselves may not be going through. Mental illness is real and should be considered as such. The stigma surrounding mental illness stems from a lack of understanding, and the key to understanding is not to deny, but to educate.

Vivian Lu