Experiencing seasonal SADness

For some, a simple case of the “winter blues” can turn into something far more serious.

SAD may be diagnosed when a person is sleeping or eating too much or if their life is being affected by their depression, Associate Professor in psychology Kate Harkness says.
SAD may be diagnosed when a person is sleeping or eating too much or if their life is being affected by their depression, Associate Professor in psychology Kate Harkness says.

As it gets darker earlier in the day and the slush and snow outside becomes harder to deal with, many of us are tempted to go into hibernation.

Alice Tibbetts, ArtSci ’13, said she can relate to feeling the “winter blues.”

“I’m indoors more. I’m not as social,” she said.

Tibbetts said she sometimes feels down and not as excited to venture outside by the end of the winter.

“Everything is all slushy and ugly.”

Kate Harkness, Associate Professor in the department of psychology, said the “winter blues” are a common occurrence during the winter months.

For two to three per cent of the North American population, however, these blues can develop into Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), Harkness said.

“People with SAD suffer from major depressive episodes,” she said, adding that these episodes can involve losing interest in activities, low energy, poor eating habits and trouble getting out of bed.

SAD tends to have its onset in young adulthood, Harkness said.

“Women are twice as likely as men to have depression just in general,” she said, and that’s the case for SAD as well.

In terms of how SAD develops, Harkness said research has focused on the hormone melatonin.

“It’s a hormone secreted at night by an area of [the brain] called the pineal gland,” she said. Melatonin regulates daily functions such as the sleep cycle, eating cycle and mood, she said.

“The way we get melatonin is through sunlight,” she said. “There’s this idea that when there’s less sunlight … because of the lower melatonin levels, that [people] suffer this dysregulation in their mood.”

So how can someone know if they’re suffering from SAD or a simple case of the “winter blues?”

“It’s kind of on a continuum with the normal ‘winter blues’ that we all feel,” she said, adding that the difference is in how much these “winter blues” affect an individual’s daily life.

“[With winter blues, it] doesn’t get to the point where it interferes with their functioning,” she said.

Harkness said it’s important to go to a doctor or mental health professional to discuss your symptoms if you think you may have SAD.

“There’s a particular pattern of symptoms that goes along with it.”

SAD can be diagnosed when someone is sleeping and eating too much or if the depression is affecting their relationships or grades, Harkness said.

“Once you develop SAD, it can kind of take on a life of its own,” she said.

The most common treatment for SAD? Light therapy.

“That’s probably one of the most effective treatments,” Harkness said, adding that many also like it because it doesn’t involve ingesting any medication.

The therapy involves a special high spectrum light that mimics the light from the sun, she said.

“They sit by a light box and they sit in front of it first thing in the morning,” Harkness said, explaining that this helps to restore their circadian rhythm.

Harkness said this can be necessary if someone is suffering from additional personal issues and stressful life events.

People with the “winter blues” can also make some small changes in their day to help them, she said, such as exercise, which promotes good chemicals in the brain, and getting outside.

“The most important thing is to get outside every day. The big problem we all have in the winter is we don’t go outside,” she said. “Even when it’s really gloomy and dark ... the sun is still quite powerful.”

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