By Patrick O’Neil
As the last rays of summer fade, the days start getting shorter. The end of September ushers in the autumn months, and many people experience a depression that’s been attributed to this changing of the seasons—otherwise known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The National Institute On Mental Health defines SAD as “a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer.”
Doctors and mental health specialists ascribe SAD as a result of the altering seasonal light, the natural result of the earth spinning on its axis and tilting away from the sun, before reversing back and the whole process starting over. This is also the cause of seasonal temperatures, cold weather as it tilts away, hot as it leans toward the sun. But the bottom line is that starting in the fall, and into winter, there are less hours of sunlight which causes a drop in brain chemicals, such as serotonin, that regulate mood. There is also the school of thought that our deep-rooted human instincts are at play as well. “Come winter, the urge to hibernate is kind of built into our DNA,” says Dr. Robert Levitan, a professor for the Toronto Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. “Hibernation is an adaptive process which is designed to protect individuals from the challenges of winter time, particularly as it relates to energy regulation, whereas seasonal depression is a combination of those physical changes with other clinical characteristics that are highly problematic for the individual.”
Add all that to the prevailing stressful atmosphere caused by the coronavirus pandemic, isolation, inactivity, and a turbulent upcoming election and the experts warn that this year could be worse than ever. “Our emotional winter is coming,” says Jaime Blandino, a clinical psychologist and cofounder of Thrive Center for Psychological Health. “I think we can expect a surge in seasonal affective disorder this year. Some of the measures we’ve had to take to protect ourselves against the coronavirus aren’t good for us. Our modes of resilience may not be applicable anymore.”
Yet if a person has never experienced depression, or if they have, but it was long ago and in the past—how do they know if they’re experiencing SAD?
“It’s normal to have some days when you feel down,” cautions the Mayo Clinic. “But if you feel down for days at a time and you can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy… This is especially important if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed, you turn to alcohol for comfort or relaxation, or you feel hopeless or think about suicide.” Some of SAD’s most pronounced symptoms include, “feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day; losing interest in activities you once enjoyed; having low energy, problems sleeping, experiencing changes in your appetite or weight, feeling sluggish or agitated, difficulty concentrating, feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty; and having frequent thoughts of death or suicide.”
“There’s also a clinically anecdotal risk factor which is just ‘how have you been doing?’” says Blandino. “The pandemic has affected the emotional state of many who haven’t usually needed to worry about their mental health. ‘Some people didn’t have depression until now.’”
“SAD can be insidious,” writes journalist Vivian Manning-Schaffel, “because [it’s] hard to pinpoint.” According to Dr. Levitan, “You might assume that it’s just nothing and before you know it, you’ve missed a lot of work.” Echoing that thought is Dr. Kathryn Roecklein, assistant professor of psychology, “[SAD] starts gradually and gets better gradually. It’s like the frog that gets cooked because he doesn’t notice the water getting warmer. The difference is going to come down to whether [SAD] interferes with your job, your home, your relationships or your health. [Because SAD] does impact your life.”
But what exactly should one do if they are suffering from SAD?
“We want people planning their day instead of just kind of hibernating and ending up in their pajamas on their couch and not taking care of themselves,” says psychiatrist Dr. Eric French. “[Also] avoid marijuana and alcohol to deal with anxiety or depression. Instead, focus on getting outside, eating right, sleeping well and staying socially connected.”
“One of the primary treatments for seasonal affective disorder is bright light therapy, which has been described as clinically affective since the 1980s,” writes the staff at CNN. “Light therapy lamps, which work by emitting full-spectrum light similar to sunlight, [for] about 20 to 60 minutes [a day]… can be associated with a significant improvement in mood.” Or one can be proactive and incorporate small measures into the day that can help get the extra needed light. Such as, “taking your coffee by the window in the morning,” suggests Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation for the American Psychological Association. Or putting, “your desk next to a window. Or… something simple such as not wearing your sunglasses when outside to fully soak in the sun’s healing rays.”
However, “If you’re experiencing a period of sadness, lifestyle changes and being proactive may help. [But] you may also [need to] seek out professional help… or medication,” writes health journalist Corey Whelan. “Depression is treatable. But simple lifestyle changes may not be enough to help you recover.”
“Getting professional treatment quickly is the key to preventing depression from worsening and leading to serious complications,” writes health columnist David Levin. “Untreated depression can lead to emotional, behavioral and health problems that affect every area of life.”
Alison Ross, a clinical psychologist and adjunct associate professor of psychology at the City College of New York, agrees with Levin’s assessment, “The longer you don’t address it, the worse those biological and psychological symptoms get. Many cases of depression get worse over time, and the more intransigent it is, the harder it is to treat. You want to get in there sooner – the quicker, the better.”
If SAD is interfering with your life, affecting your ability to function, or experience enjoyment, then it’s time to seek help and speak to a professional. Getting the help for depression you need is the healing first step toward recovery.