When the cold winter months roll around, low mood and levels of energy affect us all, but these bitter days hit harder for some.
Zoe Levine, a music therapist from Annapolis, Maryland, and a WVU alumna, finds that the cold weather isn’t what she fears most whenever winter hits. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is what overwhelms her.
“My mind was just significantly changed during the winter months,” Levine said. “I can’t get out of bed a lot of days.”
Levine is not alone.
According to American Family Physician, an estimated 10 million Americans have SAD.
SAD is, in Levine’s words, “a type of depression that is affected by the seasons, especially changes in the amount of sunlight you are exposed to.”
Mark Miller, a WVU professor and psychiatrist, furthers this explanation.
“Seasonal affective disorder is a constellation of symptoms or signs that occur in individuals with the onset at a certain time of year and the offset a certain time of the year,” Miller said. “The classic one is winter blues, winter depression, which has its onset in the fall when the days get shorter, darker, colder in the northern hemisphere anyway and usually has an offset in the spring.”
SAD can mostly be linked to the amount of sunlight available in the region during the day and genetic history.
Miller explains how the brain is affected by seasonal affective disorder by equating the brain to a clock.
Brain tissue has a rhythm similar to a clock that runs about 25 hours. Miller said that this clock is “set backward by the sun, and so when we go outside on a bright day, the sun resets our clocks, which clues our body’s physiology to what time of year it is.
The reduced sunlight in winter means it’s harder for the brain to be reset, causing it to function as if the body is in darkness.
Melatonin, the chemical controlling when it’s time to sleep, eat and wake up, is continually released whenever it’s dark, so if the brain only perceives darkness then an overabundance of melatonin is produced. This means sleep, eating and emotional cycles are thrown off, leading to SAD.
Diagnosed when she was 15 years old, Levine has been living with SAD for six years. She first went to therapy for her symptoms of depression, but her therapist identified an unusual pattern of sleep and mood that was linked with the onset of the fall season.
“I started therapy when I was a sophomore at high school, and it was for some other stuff going on, but in that process we kind of identified some patterns that were to happen,” Levine said. “I had different sleep patterns in the winter. . . all of these things kind of came up.”
To combat these symptoms, Levine exercises regularly and uses a sunlamp. “I sit in front of it to try to get as much sunlight that emulates the summer months as possible,” Levine said. “I also have to be really careful and plan, and I exercise ahead of time.”
Miller also cites sun lamps and exercise as the best fighters of seasonal depression. “The light therapy is an artificial way of resetting your internal clock,”Miller said.
Exercise also plays a part in light.
“If you get up with the dawn and you walk outside, even though it doesn’t look bright, that’s a lot brighter out there than it is in your house,” Miller said. “That could be a quick and early and cheap way to get extra light.”
Miller said that therapy, medication, and high doses of vitamin D and B12 can help those struggling with seasonal depression.
The one piece of advice that Levine has for those struggling with seasonal affective disorder or low mood during the winter months is to “identify who the support people in your life are and open up communication channels with them.” She emphasizes that having loving people to support you when you can’t is the best way to cope.
If you or someone you know has or displays symptoms of SAD, call the Carruth Center at 304-293-4431 or visit their website at https://carruth.wvu.edu/ to talk or schedule an appointment with professional counselors and psychiatrists.