SAD(ness) happens, the sunshine will come

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is caused by lack of sunlight, which lowers levels of serotonin and increases levels of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone


Nick Jahnke, Senior News Reporter

There’s snow on the ground. The car is frozen over. The outdoors are a hostile place. Wouldn’t it be better to just stay in bed?

This is the reality some of us have battled with since the winter months began.

Maybe your friends haven’t been getting together lately. Maybe you’ve dedicated most of your time to school and work. Maybe you spent Valentine’s Day alone or maybe it’s just the weather.

There are a lot of things that can get you down during the winter season. Whatever the case, there’s something about these cold months that tends to amplify depressive thoughts and behaviors.

The common name for this pattern of thought and behavior is seasonal depression. Officially it’s known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. It’s a phenomenon that has been gaining acceptance in the scientific community, but because the symptoms are tough to delineate apart from those of general depression, it’s the subject of much debate, according to the Jefferson Journal of Psychiatry.

According to Mental Health America (MHA), the main causes of SAD are lack of sunlight, which is linked to lower levels of serotonin (one of the neurotransmitters that affects mood) in the brain, and increased levels of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone that tends to be produced at higher rates in the dark.

I would agree with those assertions. Looking outside at the snow and ice, the possibility of a productive day seems more and more distant. There’s more to it than brain chemistry, though.

Winter comes with a slew of societal pressures. For example, many refer to the cold months as ‘cuffing season,’ a time when we are supposed to find a partner to keep warm with. This can be problematic for those of us who have remained single, by choice or otherwise. Feelings of loneliness and dread are compounded by the frustration of being trapped indoors, with nowhere to go and nothing worth doing. This troublesome combination is made worse for those of us that live alone.

At the height of these winter blues comes Valentine’s day. Not much explanation is needed there. You’re either alone on V-Day, or you’re not. In recent years, I’ve noticed that being alone on Valentine’s Day isn’t necessarily viewed as a bad thing, and there is usually a call for all the single people to get together and celebrate. Unfortunately, the narrative still implies that the single people are getting together to share in their loneliness, not to celebrate their independence.

Another pressure that seems to be universal is the idea that one must begin getting their physique ready during the winter. The expression goes something like: ‘The summer body begins in winter.’ This idea is fundamentally conflicting with the symptoms of SAD, which, according to MHA, include trouble with oversleeping, lethargic tendencies and overeating.

Those symptoms, paired with the pressure of physical self-improvement, can foster inner conflict and create yet another level of stress and anxiety. This leaves us feeling guilty and at some levels, hopeless. Ironically, MHA says that one of the possible treatments for SAD is increasing exercise…how helpful.

Fortunately, by definition, SAD is a temporary affliction. It is said to come and go with the cold months, and according to MHA, some people experience heightened levels of euphoria or happy feelings once spring and summer come around. That being said, it’s also common that the winter blues is simply amplifying an underlying depression that isn’t bound to any season.

MHA says that a possible treatment is bright light therapy, also known as phototherapy. Phototherapy consists of patients being exposed to ten times the intensity of normal domestic lighting for up to four hours a day. Supposedly this suppresses the production of melatonin, which should help with oversleeping and lethargy.

I’ll be waiting for the sunshine to return.