Winter weather prompts Seasonal Affective Disorder

By Meghan Gray

One form of depression commonly experienced in the colder months is Seasonal Affective Disorder. Arctic temperatures and minimal sunlight can cause people to experience winter dejection.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, winter-onset symptoms typically appear in late fall and early winter and are gone by summer. The condition is reported to mildly affect between 10 and 20 percent of the American population.

Lack of sunlight in the colder months causes one’s body to produce more melatonin than during any other season. The chemical is secreted into the blood by the pineal gland in the brain and regulates sleep-wake cycles.

“People could get to the point where they feel very despondent,” said Rebecca Aronson, coordinator of Counseling Services at Columbia. “Many students come to the counseling center with sub-clinical levels of depression, especially in the winter.”

Jaymee Crouch, junior english major, said she feels a similar symptom of depression during the season.

“I always get bummed out in the winter,” Crouch said.

According to Aronson, people who feel depressed may have thoughts of death or suicide.

“If it gets to the point where a person can’t function and it is really severe, then probably a good course of action would be to try some kind of medication,” Aronson said.

Being a subset of depression, the symptoms of SAD are analogous and can include a lack of energy, oversleeping, increase in consumption of carbohydrates, intense sadness and social withdrawal.

“To have a diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder, you have to have had two years where there has been an onset of a depressive mood that coincides with the changing of seasons,” Aronson said.

SAD is the body’s reaction to scarce quantities of daylight. Because of this, light therapy is considered the most successful method of treatment, according to a study by the Department of Psychology at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center, light therapy has antidepressant effect and is a reccommended treatment for SAD.

Alexis Murray-Golay, a Ravenswood licensed professional counselor discussed how light boxes simulate the rays emitted from the sun.

“Exposing yourself to a light box helps turn off how much melatonin your brain is making and also helps increase how much serotonin your brain is making, which is a little feel-good chemical,” Murray-Golay said.

Other suggestions to improve symptoms include exercising regularly, maintaining a balanced diet, engaging in social activities, spending time outside and chronotherapy.

Chronotherapeutic methods are a “set of circadian rhythm-altering interventions that treat depression by adjustments of the sleep-wake cycle and daily light exposure,” according to the Chicago Psychiatry Association.

“[SAD] is one of those mental health disorders that’s on a continuum, where probably everybody has it and it just varies in severity,” Murray-Golay said.

According to Aronson, what’s interesting about Seasonal Affective Disorder is the higher up in the latitudes you go, the more prevalent the condition becomes.

[“People who] live close to the equator are not as likely to get Seasonal Affective Disorder,” Aronson said.

John F.Gottlieb, assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Northwestern University, notes that in terms of formal psychiatric diagnosis, SAD is not technically classified as a medical condition.

“Seasonal features serve as course modifiers that are regularly added to different mood disorder diagnoses,” Gottlieb said. “When we talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder, we’re talking about either standard depression or bipolar disorder with seasonal features.”

In regards to seasonality, it means a person’s moods follow a particular pattern throughout the year.

“Seasonal affective disorder is something that comes and goes,” Murray-Golay said.