Seasonal Depression

By: Olivia Morrison

You tuck away your white jeans into the darkest crevice of your drawer. You grab a sweatshirt for a night walk with your roommates – you’ve forgotten how refreshing the cold air is once the sun sets. You walk outside and with each step you take, the crunch of fallen leaves beneath your feet slowly drown out the solemn songs of summer. With each exhale, you inhale the flavors of fall – Trader Joe’s pumpkin flavored bagels, warm apple cider, football tailgate fried chicken… 

While the euphoric beauty of autumn colors, apple picking and coordinating Halloween costumes with friends keeps you distracted from what’s next, before you know it, it’s pitch-black out at 5 p.m. and you’re suddenly stuck in the cold and dark void of nighttime.  If you, like me, often find yourself wondering why you are more sluggish, anxious, and less motivated during the winter months, you might be experiencing Seasonal Depression (SAD). 

 I always thought seasonal depression was an inside joke with my friends; they’ll joke that “winter is coming..” (shout out Jon Snow), complaining about how we’ll have absolutely nothing to do once the season hits –  they weren’t kidding. After attending a secluded boarding school in Western Massachusetts – where the most riveting part of my day during the winter months was getting a ride from a day student for a coveted iced mocha at the closest Dunkin – I have a deep understanding of the paralyzing effects of the winter blues. 

According to the Cleveland Clinic, “half a million people in the United States suffer from winter SAD, while 10 to 20% may suffer from a more mild form of winter blues.” Just like a bear preparing for hibernation, humans also have “cyclical rhythms which are dictated by the seasons”  (Smyth and Thompson, 1995). The four most common symptoms of SAD include hypersomnia, lethargy, depression, an increased appetite and, though rare, some individuals may even experience “anxiety, mood swings and menstrual difficulties” (Smyth and Thompson, 1995). SAD can also catalyze a depletion of energy levels which make it harder to focus on work, causing a “lack of vitality and little motivation to carry on a normal life” (Smyth and Thompson, 1995). Couple these effects with the added strain of Covid-19 and virtual learning, and the winter months impose both physical and mental obstacles for young people.  

Unfortunately for us, women are also four times more likely to be affected by SAD than men (Rosen 1990). According to a study done at the University of Copenhagen, because individuals with SAD have “higher cerebral serotonin transporter binding” and women  “have higher serotonin transporter density in the midbrain” than men,  we have a much higher predisposition to be diagnosed with SAD (Mahon 2016). Dr. Rosenthal, who coined the term SAD in 1984 while studying the correlation between the change in seasons and one’s mood, explains that there are ways to alleviate some of these debilitating symptoms.

The root cause of SAD is a lack of light exposure. As distance from the equator increases and nights grow longer, the percentage of SAD cases multiply (Rosenthal 2009). The shorter hours of daylight can catalyze some of these milder SAD symptoms. However, “serotonergic transmission,” a process in which one’s serotonin levels are depleted, can be reversed by exposure to bright light (Rosenthal 2009).  This sort of light therapy is not hard to facilitate; it’s really easy to find portable light fixtures or LEDs, and “sitting in front of a light fixture or via a head-mounted light device,” is the “treatment of choice” for most individuals who experience SAD  (Meesters and Gordijn 2016). If you are looking for another convenient way to alleviate SAD symptoms, a study at the University of Netherland’s Center for Psychiatry found that waking up early in the morning before dawn emulates the same effects as LED light therapy, and is less of a financial investment  (Meesters and Gordijn 2016). In the study, “a gradual increase of morning light…just prior to wake-up time,” not only has the same outcome as light therapy, but is also less time consuming!  Physical Exercise also has positive effects on the moods of those who experienced SAD (Meesters and Gordijn 2016). 

For me, the winter blues can be overwhelming. I feel unmotivated to study for finals and frustrated by how cold my toes and fingertips get after being outside for no more than ten minutes. However, it’s important to normalize these feelings that myself and so many others experience. So – sometimes, I’ll sit with my discontent for the frigid weather, and find comfort with the discomfort.  And I’ll realize this  hopelessness I am feeling is my body’s natural, biological response to the lack of sunlight in the day – nothing more.  This oddly motivating realization pushes me to get outside and get moving. On some mornings, after waking up to an unexpected snowfall,  I’ll go on a walk and find  myself mesmerized by the Winter Wonderland I’m suddenly immersed in, finding satisfaction in the crunch beneath my feet as I step out onto the new layer of snow. Yet, other mornings, I’ll just lay in bed until all the snow has melted. Either way, as long as I’m intuitively listening to my body, I know I am making the right choice. But maybe this year, I’ll take my own advice and wake up just a bit earlier to watch the sunrise….

Reference List:

Mahon, Brenda Mc, et al. “Seasonal Difference in Brain Serotonin Transporter Binding Predicts Symptom Severity in Patients with Seasonal Affective Disorder.” Brain, vol. 139, no. 5, 2016, pp. 1605–1614., doi:10.1093/brain/aww043.

Meesters, Ybe, and Marijke C.m. Gordijn. “Seasonal Affective Disorder, Winter Type: Current Insights and Treatment Options.” Psychology Research and Behavior Management, Volume 9, 2016, pp. 317–327., doi:10.2147/prbm.s114906.

Rosen, Leora N., et al. “Prevalence of Seasonal Affective Disorder at Four Latitudes.” Psychiatry Research, vol. 31, no. 2, 1990, pp. 131–144., doi:10.1016/0165-1781(90)90116-m.

Rosenthal, Norman E. “Issues for DSM-V: Seasonal Affective Disorder and Seasonality.” American Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 166, no. 8, 2009, pp. 852–853., doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2009.09020188.Smyth, Angela, and Chris Thompson. Seasonal Affective Disorder: Who Gets It? What Causes It? How to Cure It? Thorsons, 1995.

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