Seasonal Affective Disorder

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

The leaves have turned and dropped, and perhaps our minds and spirits have followed as we say goodbye to yet another (alleged!) summer and gradually slip into winter. There are countless ways in which our minds and bodies change with changes in our environment. One of these is due to the fact that the further north we live the less light we receive through the winter. And the further north you go the greater the number of people in the population who suffer emotionally through the winter.

More serious than the winter distress of Leaf hockey fans, but perhaps just as predictable, is a form of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD for short.

SAD includes increases in appetite and weight, more fatigue and sleepiness, problems concentrating, irritability, social avoidance and feelings of anxiety and despair. It sounds a little like our bodies are trying to hibernate. SAD may affect about 9% of us and about 25% more grump through winter with a milder form, the Winter Blues. There is no seasonal variation in other mood disorders such as bipolar disorder or post partum depression.

These general, categorical signs of SAD don’t give us a very vivid sense of what suffering SAD is like, just as a neat list of salmonella symptoms doesn’t touch the actual experience. Our experience of anything is always unique. Some people feel too withdrawn and flat to be festive through the holiday season, troubled with the question, “Why?” People say they feel “shut down”, “weighed down”, and “bleak”. It’s like living with an extra 50 pounds in your backpack; it quickly feels too hard to function at all and the wish to drop out of everything can take over.

How come? A brain hormone, melatonin, helps regulate our night-and-day rhythms, among many other things. Light may regulate the manufacturing of melatonin through connections from the eye to the pineal gland in the brain. Also, seasonal changes in retinal function are found in people who suffer SAD. People with SAD don’t build melanopsin, a photopigment chemical in our eyes, as effectively, but extra light seems to correct this genetic difference.

So it seems that light is a drug, an external agent that regulates our inner world. Since Dr. Norman Rosenthal first described SAD 25 years ago (his book, Winter Blues, was revised in 2006), light therapy has been shown to be very effective as a treatment. This involves sitting with a light therapy box that provides bright, full spectrum light for 30 – 60 minutes each day. Light in the morning may be best.

A study hot off the presses found that light therapy does only some of the job of addressing SAD. How we feel and think about winter itself plays a big role too. Many people just have a cheerless mental set when it comes to winter. This mental set creates a cold environment inside their head, full of chilly grumbling gloom (“friggin’ snow … I can’t stand this … what’s more miserable?”). Reducing our mental bellyaching and self-criticism significantly helps to relieve SAD.

What to practice? Light therapy is a good way to go. Do a little more research and look into the light boxes that are available on the internet market. Get out for a walk in the light of day, every day if you can. Lift your face to the sky and drink in the light. Definitely get more physically active, even if you don’t like it. And check your mind’s commentary and criticism, because SAD may be one more example of our mind making us miserable.