When psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal moved from South Africa to New York City in the 1970s, he noticed a significant increase in feelings of depression during the cold, short days of the city's winters.
Back then, people would dismiss these feelings as a common experience shared by everyone during the winter season. However, Rosenthal recognised the need to explore and address this condition.
In 1984, he published the first scientific paper introducing the term "Seasonal Affective Disorder" (SAD) or seasonal depression, attributing it to the dark days of winter.
Since then, studies have revealed that SAD varies by geography and affects approximately 3% of the general population.
SAD or just sad?
While it is normal for moods to fluctuate with the seasons, those experiencing SAD go beyond the usual winter blues. Kelly Rohan, a psychologist specialising in SAD, explains that individuals with SAD exhibit symptoms similar to clinical depression.
These symptoms include persistent sadness, loss of interest in activities, sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. The most commonly reported symptoms of winter depression are excessive sleepiness and increased appetite, leading to a desire to hibernate.
Shedding some light on SAD
The primary trigger for SAD is believed to be the shorter photoperiod, or the number of daylight hours from dawn to dusk.
Disrupted circadian rhythms, our biological clock regulating sleep-wake cycles, play a significant role. The decrease in daylight may disturb the release of melatonin, a hormone responsible for promoting sleep. As the body's natural alarm clock tries to wake up in the morning, it may still be in a state of biological night. While the exact mechanisms are not yet fully understood, this disruption can lead to depression in susceptible individuals.
More SAD women
SAD is more prevalent among women, with approximately three times as many women experiencing it compared to men.
Individual differences in brain chemistry and sensitivity to light may also contribute to the development of SAD. Some individuals may have a higher vulnerability to changes in light, making them more susceptible to mood disturbances during darker seasons.
Genetic predisposition and family history of mood disorders also appear to play a role, suggesting a complex interplay between genetic and environmental factors.
Get professional illumination
A professional diagnosis is crucial for individuals suspecting they may have SAD. Experts emphasise the importance of avoiding self-diagnosis and consulting trained professionals.
Light therapy, wherein individuals sit in front of a bright light box delivering 10,000 lux of light, has proven to be an effective treatment for SAD. It is recommended to use light boxes for about 30 minutes in the morning to help regulate sleep-wake cycles.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is another recommended treatment option that focuses on changing negative thought patterns associated with SAD.
Supplementation with vitamin D, in consultation with a healthcare professional, can also help restore optimal levels and potentially alleviate SAD symptoms. Additionally, consuming foods rich in vitamin D, such as fatty fish and fortified dairy products, may help.
Lifestyle changes and indulge in some self-care sunshine
In addition to professional treatments, individuals can take small steps to manage SAD through lifestyle changes. Engaging in regular exercise, stress management techniques, and pursuing indoor hobbies during the winter months can help improve mood. Planning a sunny vacation or finding ways to incorporate enjoyable activities throughout the year are also helpful strategies.
It is essential to recognise that seeking mental health treatment and adopting coping mechanisms can significantly improve wellbeing, even if symptoms occur only for a few months each year.
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