Does winter make you feel unmotivated? Do you feel a lack of urgency and an overwhelming wish to just sit…and sleep…winter away? I know I do. Something about cold winds and dark days makes me want to skip winter entirely.
With winter comes shorter days and less sunlight. Serotonin levels are often linked to sunlight exposure, and lower serotonin can result in worse moods and even depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is often cited as the cause of these “winter blues.”
I’ve heard the term as often as you. #SAD often trends each winter in mental health communities. While the concept makes sense on the surface, I’ve always wondered: what exactly is SAD? And is it real?
Today in the Rain, we’re about to find out.
Who came up with Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder almost always becomes a trending keyword when it comes to winter in the mental health community. The term was actually first coined by Norman Rosenthal, MD. et al. in 1984 to describe a group they studied in Maryland at the time.
On his own website, Rosenthal describes SAD as “a type of depression that occurs regularly, every autumn and winter, when the days get short and dark, though it may occur at other times as well.”
He cites a lack of environmental light as a major cause of SAD, along with an individual’s biological predisposition and stress. (Looking to reduce stress or anxiety? Check out our post on stress and anxiety reduction here!)
Current resources on Seasonal Affective Disorder cite similar causes. MayoClinic points out that a specific cause is unknown. However, possible factors they mention include: a disrupted biological clock and reduced serotonin and melatonin levels.
Common symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder are similar to major depression symptoms. These can include frequent oversleeping, body heaviness, changes in appetite/weight, difficulty sleeping or focusing, feeling hopeless or guilty, and more. Explore Mayo Clinic and the National Institute of Mental Health for a more conducive list of symptoms.
SAD faces skepticism
But is Seasonal Affective Disorder real, or is it just a unique new name for feeling down? Darren Cotterell from MRCPsych says initial skepticism stemmed from individuals viewing it the same as typical variations in mood.
More specifically, skepticism rose due to “the initial population used to describe the phenomenon [having been] enrolled through newspaper advertisements specifically designed to recruit people who thought they had a seasonal mood disorder.”
With a little digging, you can find Rosenthal et al.’s original 1984 findings on SAD. Indeed, he describes a pilot study on one woman at the National Institute of Mental Health concerning the effects of light on her winter depression. Through a newspaper article on June 12, 1981 in the Washington Post, his team then invited similar “persons with seasonal mood changes,” to contact the team concerning a study.
Seasonal Affective Disorder study recruitment
The persons were screened for location, a history of major affective disorder and at least two consecutive years having experienced depression during the fall and winter that then faded in the spring or summer. Out of 2,000 responses, 29 individuals were found to meet this criteria.
On October 29, 2015, The Washington Post published “The Washington Post helped discover seasonal affective disorder. Now here’s how to beat it.” The article links to the original story and dubs the call-to-action an assist to Rosenthal et al.
So were Rosenthal’s findings real? Or did self-identifying patients skew results? The overwhelming opinion seems to lie with the former. So there you have it: Seasonal Affective Disorder exists! Even so, it’s categorization is debated.
So what is it? A disorder or depression?
The quick answer: Seasonal Affective Disorder is both a disorder and a type of depression!
In 2010, Cotterell wrote that “despite being recognized as a syndrome, SAD does not currently exist as a specific diagnostic category in current frameworks.”
Healthline claims that Seasonal Affective Disorder is an outdated term for major depression with seasonal pattern. Finally, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders categorizes SAD as a type of depression. The DSM is the authoritative guide to mental health disorder diagnosis and serves a handbook used by health care professionals in the United States and the world.
So there you have it- SAD is in fact a type of depression, entitled a disorder. At the end of the day, what truly matters it that it exists and affects up to 6 percent of the U.S. population (depending on the source). It can mildly affect even more individuals, less severely
So what exactly should you do if wintertime is getting you down? If you feel like Seasonal Affective Disorder may be majorly affecting your life, it’s time to consult a health professional.
In the meantime, here are some tips that can help anyone (including me!) in the wintertime.
Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder
For Seasonal Affective Disorder, treatment can also start with simply spending more time in the sun. This can include spending more time outside or near windows during the day. Best part about it-this treatment is quick, easy and free! Taking a break or walk outside can greatly improve your mood no matter your symptoms.
Alternatively, light therapy is an increasingly popular treatment as well. Regular lights can offer the benefit of light therapy, but specifically designed light boxes are the way to go for more specialized treatment. There are some risks associated with light therapy particularly for those with bipolar disorder or diabetes.
At the end of the day, for larger investments, consult a health professional for a diagnosis and recommended steps!
What’s your plan?
Which tactics will you use to improve your winter well-being?
You’ll find me near a sunny window or better yet, in the spring. Share with me your winter plan below and be sure to join our mailing list for more mental health resources in the Rain.
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