Why We Get SAD When The Sun Goes Away

 
 
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When fall and winter come, the days get short, the leaves change color, and clouds paint grey across the skies.

These months are supposed to be the most cheerful ones, but if you're living in a place with seasonal inclement weather, they can become frigid excuses of sunnier times.


What Happens to Humans When Winter Arrives

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Sunlight is our long-time friend.

The sun plays a significant role in our moods. Its rise and fall dictates when our body prepares for sleep, and when it wakes up. This sleep-wake cycle, otherwise known as the 'Circadian Rhythm', changes in the winter months when the usual rise and fall of the sun changes.

There's biological benefits to that change, because less activity means more energy during the wintertime scarcities of heat and food. But...

Biological changes in winter can be counterproductive to mental health:

  • Brain Bafflement: there's a bundle of cells in our brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. The nucleus responds to sunlight cues with a 'sleepytime' chemical called Melatonin, which when released, helps transition the body into sleep mode.
    |This is good if it's bedtime, but if the wintertime sun starts to set at 5:00pm on a Monday, the body might begin to slow down - long before we plan to turn in for the night. 
  • Melatonin Making Things Worse: that 'sleepytime' chemical, Melatonin, is big player in the sleep-wake team. The shift in Melatonin release throws our Circadian Rhythms out of whack, further impacting when our body gets tired and when it wants to wake up.
  • Neurotransmitter Imbalances Deepen the Darkness: Neurotransmitters in the brain like Serotonin, largely responsible for mood, begin to fluctuate. These imbalances might then lead to broad-spectrum emotional effects.

The SAD Truth

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Seasonal Affective Disorder: SAD, a fitting acronym, is a type of depression that usually manifests itself in the fall or winter months. This disorder is believed to affect anywhere from 4-6% of the population, and up to 20% can experience mild symptoms.

For some, SAD means just a few mornings of amotivation and laziness, and not much else.

For others, SAD can spiral into a serious depressive disorder, complete with symptoms like fatigue, appetite changes, feelings of hopelessness, or even thoughts of suicide


Bringing Back the Light

 
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The first thing to do if you feel like you might be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder is to seek professional help. While SAD isn't curable, it's symptoms can be managed to the point where they don't impact daily health and happiness. 

'Doctor, Doctor, Whatcha Gonna Do?' - 3 SAD Remedies

  1. Those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder might be asked to try a psychological therapy like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. These techniques ares designed to teach coping strategies and new methods for keeping positivity up, and the wintertime blues at bay.
  2. Depending on the severity symptoms, a physician might prescribe an antidepressant like a Selective-Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI). SSRI's help to regulate Serotonin imbalances in the brain and therefore help regulate mood.
  3. Finally, SAD sufferers may try Light Therapy by using an artificial UV lamp throughout the day. Because the disorder is thought to be caused by a lack of sunlight, adding some artificial sunlight can trick the brain and mediate Melatonin release.

My SAD Suggestions:

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I spent four years in Seattle where it's rainy and grey most of the year. I quickly began to suffer the negative effects of SAD. However, I discovered a few great tricks that helped me, and might help you, too!

  • A Regular Bedtime Schedule: for a college student, this wasn't easy, but going to bed and waking up on a normal schedule helped me keep to a routine and get the most from my (rainy) days.
  • Controlling Caffeine Consumption: it's easy to chug a pot of coffee in the AM, then maybe another at lunch to keep going, but caffeine can easily screw with the Circadian Rhythm. A cup or two to jumpstart the day is fine, but if you're hitting Starbucks on your way home in the evening, you may need to rethink your coffee habit.  
  • Exercise for the Body is Good For the Mind: Not only is working out great for a healthy body (and healthy body is good for a healthy mood), but it's even better for your brain. Exercise releases Endorphins, our brain's happy-chemicals, and also triggers Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, a natural neurological protector.
  • Stay Busy; Fall Back on Friends: Keeping the mind occupied staves off negative ruminations. I tried to stay busy with my writing, my homework, and of course, plenty of video games with my buddies!
  • There's Always Light, Even in the Darkest of Times: there's always help available for people who suffer from depression. Don't ever give up. Seek help when you need it. If you're at your wits end, here are another few resources:
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Anxiety and Depression Association of America

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National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

 

1-800-273-8255


While mental disorders like SAD are never a fun experience, don't give up. Mental disorders like Seasonal Affective Disorder are never a fun experience, don't just wait for the sun to come back in the Spring.

It's always possible find light, in even the darkest of winters.

 
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References:

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651

https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/light-therapy/about/pac-20384604

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/ssris/art-20044825

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/cognitive-behavioral-therapy

My Psychology Degree :)