Do you ever find yourself lying in your bed for longer than you’d like? Do you indulge in sweets more often? Do you feel like taking a nap every chance you get? Are you becoming irritable with others more than usual? Before you give an excuse about how that Hershey’s bar was just staring at you, and eating it would have been the only action to relieve the discomfort, there is a simple explanation for these symptoms. These conditions may point to Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD.
According to lumie.com, an educational Web site that teaches the public about the disorder, the primary causes of SAD are due to chemical changes that take place in the brain when affected by the amount of sunlight a person is exposed to, as well as the fact that bright light in the morning sets our circadian rhythm, or our natural biological clock. Since winter mostly consists of overcast and rainy weather, people do not generally get as much sunlight. Due to this light deficiency, the part of the brain that controls our behavior is altered in a way that makes people prone to gloomy and irritable behavior.
First-year biological sciences major Gabriel Dimalanta said, ‘I don’t think [SAD] affects that many people in Southern California because it is always sunny.’ According to ncampd.com, a Web site created by Dr. Carol E. Watkins, this belief is due to the fact that incidences of SAD gradually increase as latitude increases, or where climate tends to be more severe.
The weather also affects our circadian rhythm. According to webmd.com, an online medical index, this biological clock is set according to light exposure and the duration of that exposure. Our exposure to light often affects the production of the hormone melatonin, which is designed to signal our bodies when to go to sleep or when to wake up. The most important time to receive light exposure is in the morning, because it determines the levels of melatonin that will be produced for that day. Without appropriate light exposure, melatonin production becomes irregular and people tend to be more tired during the daytime. If there is no sunlight to cue our bodies to wake up, it may become more difficult to get out of bed. Since a lack of light is associated with nighttime, our circadian rhythm urges our bodies to stay in bed.
When asked if she has ever experienced any symptoms of the winter blues, second-year psychology major Sheena Gill responded, ‘I never thought about it before, but now that I think of it, during the wintertime, I do tend to be more lazy and tired than I am during some of the other seasons.’
Seasonal Affective Disorder also has a psychological aspect to it. According to Dr. Cliff Arnall, a well-known psychologist from the United Kingdom, the depression aspect of the disorder is caused by the following psychological factors: weather, monthly salary, debt, time since Christmas occurred, time since failure to quit, low motivational levels and the need to take action. As people groan to pay their credit-card bills on Christmas gifts, their post-Christmas lives simply pale in comparison to their Christmas experiences.
The New Year also significantly triggers the disorder, in that people tend to reflect on the past year and decide their level of satisfaction based on what they have achieved or failed to accomplish. These low motivational levels and failed attempts are commonly a result of overly ambitious New Year’s resolutions.
Although it is labeled as a disorder, it is possible to have this disorder and still be considered ‘normal.’ Out of 10 million Americans that are affected by this disorder, only two to five percent of them have an extreme version of the symptoms and cannot function without continuous treatment. This bout of the ‘winter blues’ is usually resolved in the spring months, when there tends to be more sunlight. If the symptoms are more severe, those affected tend to have manic mood swings in the spring and/or summer months.
Even though there is no formal cure for this disorder, there are some light treatments that are used to alleviate symptoms. According to ncpamd.com, studies show that daily walks outside with exposure to outdoor light, even when it is overcast, can show some signs of improvement in the disorder. Other studies show that general exposure to bright lights (between 30 minutes to four hours) can improve symptoms. Psychotherapy is also recommended for those that have severe SAD symptoms. However, the effectiveness of these treatments depends on the climate and the severity of the condition.
If you have SAD and your symptoms do not improve, do not stress. They should be resolved by spring when there is more exposure to light. If symptoms still continue, see your doctor for possible treatment.