It is odd how much the seasons can have an effect on us. In the summer, there is a prevailing sense of joy and freedom, connectedness and hope. Every emotion a person could derive from the words “bright” and “warm” is readily available. The simplest things like walking outside of your home to a sunny sky can be the cause of elation. However, as we all know, things are not always sunny, and they are most definitely not always warm.If bright and warm is the summer, then arguably dark and cold is the winter. It has been said that every mile is two in winter, and none feel this extra mile more than those with Seasonal Affective Disorder, (SAD) commonly called Seasonal Depression.
To raise awareness for this disorder, December has been chosen to be Seasonal Depression Awareness Month. A person might think it odd to designate a month of holidays and expectations of “being jolly” for raising depression awareness, but upon further review, there is no better month for it.
SAD affects about six-and-a-half percent of the population and occurs as the days get shorter and there is less light. December is host to the winter solstice, the date when daylight is most limited and night is longest. For those suffering with SAD, this point in midwinter can be the worst for their malleable moods.
As winter comes, many people start to feel the “winter blues.” They may become a little more tired or anxious. After all, there are not many positive things that people can associate with the darkness of shortened days or the coldness of winter. What is particular to those affected by the disorder is the heightened symptoms that they experience.
During the winter, those who suffer from SAD experience increased sadness, heightened anxiety, irritability, the desire to be alone and a decrease in concentration. They might also experience lethargy, leading to an increased need for sleep and cravings for sweets and carbohydrates which might lead to weight gain. The combination of several of these symptoms can be debilitating and ultimately affect relationships or work.
Interestingly enough, latitude plays an important role in the influence of mood. This can be seen by the extreme representation of suicide rates.
According to the World Health Organization, northern states such as Alaska and Montana frequently find themselves at the top of the suicide rate charts. These states tend to receive less sunlight and have longer winters.
Internationally, suicide rates are much higher in the colder northern and central European countries than the tropical countries of South and Central America. When a person takes the effect of extreme depression, suicide, into account, the correlation between depression and latitude becomes clear. The latitudinal regions closest to the poles see the most instances of depression.
Clearly, seasonal depression is subject to two factors, temperature and sunlight, but what exactly about these things makes people with normal mental health throughout most of the year so debilitated during winter?
The first has to do with the hibernation theory. As humans are basically mammals, it is theorized that humans feel an inclination to hibernate during the winter, not exactly like bears. This could account for the increased proclivity to consume carbohydrates and sweets. Colder temperatures have a slowing effect on the human body because as the temperature drops, the heart has a tougher job circulating blood. This contributes to the symptom of lethargy, or lack of energy. Also because of the temperature, many people are less inclined to partake in outdoor physical activity, which can lessen depressive symptoms.
When it comes to the lack of sunlight, most patho-physiologists, those who study these disorders, believe that it has to do with the body’s chemicals and its ultimate derivation from sunlight. The chemical melatonin is responsible for the bodies sleep cycles. The amount of melatonin that is created is dependent upon the amount of sunlight being received by the eyes.
Melatonin is produced when there is a lack of light and its production is discontinued when the retinae receive light. So in the darker months of winter, melatonin production is at its highest, and we are at our most lethargic. With such high levels of this sleep-inducing chemical in our bodies, the production of the mood-affecting chemical, serotonin is reduced. Low levels of serotonin are responsible for symptoms such as depression, anxiety and irritibilty. It is this combination of enviromental circumstances that is responsible for this one-thing-leads-to-another type of disorder.
The medical treatment for Seasonal Depression range from medications, to a box that emits fluorescent light that a treatee is expected to shine on themselves for extended periods of time. Although these treatments have proven effective, nothing compares to a solid support of good friends and a caring family.
With six-and-a-half percent of the population suffering from the disorder, and 10 to 20 percent experiencing sub-syndromal symptoms, the problem of Seasonal Affective Disorder has never been more pertinent; knowledge of the disorder has never been more pivotal.
With the advent of Seasonal Depression month, knowledge of the SAD disorder will no longer be in a state of hibernation.
Lugino Petrone is a first-year student majoring in political science. He can be reached at LP652083@wcupa.edu.