In winter, especially for those of us living in Canada, a window view of monochromatic skies and a frozen landscape has likely grown into a daily sight. Needless to say, the gloomy weather does nothing to help our lethargy, tiredness or lack of motivation. I’m sure many of you will relate with the aforementioned symptoms, but it’s not uncommon for these conditions to escalate from sadness to SAD — seasonal affective disorder.
My first time hearing about this condition was only several weeks ago, during a student community meeting, where my peers and I come together to discuss relevant issues and offer support for one another through a process of sharing (much like INKspire, in many respects)! Upon learning about the existence of SAD, I was surprised to find that many of the emotions I’d been feeling were, at the minimum, mild forms of SAD’s medical symptoms. Most importantly though, I realized that these negative attributes aren’t a result of personal weakness. Rather, they’re caused primarily by changes in the environment — an external factor that’s out of our control and not something to blame ourselves for.
What is SAD?
While depression is widely acknowledged as a medical illness, and those diagnosed with it are to receive proper treatment, SAD unfortunately doesn’t receive the same degree of recognition. In fact, its severity is often undermined, and those suffering from it thus dismissed. But SAD is actually categorized by experts as a specific type of depression, contrary to the common belief that it’s simply a less severe version of it. So here I am stressing the seriousness of SAD — and yes, we need to do this in order to garner awareness and properly tackle the disorder. At the same time, though, there’s no need to start panicking because SAD is still perfectly treatable (the specifics of which will be expanded upon later).
With the idea of “winter blues” being a widely known and relatable phenomenon, it is no coincidence that we typically associate winter landscapes with loneliness, and cold weather with sadness. In the Northern Hemisphere, days are shorter and less sunny in the winter. As a result, psychologists speculate that our internal clocks are thrown off course in an attempt to adapt to darker days, affecting our levels of serotonin and melatonin. The former is responsible for regulating mood, while the latter regulates our sleep schedule. Their imbalances can cause symptoms of SAD, including overeating, unexplained weight gain or cravings, extreme fatigue, mood swings and general feelings of hopelessness or lethargy. But there are still gaps in the research, and not enough evidence to say for certain that this is the exact cause behind SAD. At the end of the day, the fact remains that the disorder is still a very real condition that affects 2-3% of the population, and about 15% will experience a milder case of it.
Who Gets SAD?
The first thing to remember about SAD is that, well, just like sadness, you’re not the only one who gets it. Anyone may feel sad, and similarly, anyone may become a victim of SAD. It doesn’t mean that you’re mentally weak or unhealthier than others. Statistics do indicate, though, that youth and women are more prone to experience SAD. If the aforementioned theory of reduced sunlight as the primary cause for SAD is true, then those geographically situated further from the equator are also more susceptible. Nevertheless, just because certain populations are predisposed for higher risk does not eliminate the possibility for those outside of these categories to contract SAD as well.
Whether you want to better prepare yourself in case you may experience SAD, or are beginning to exhibit minor symptoms and want to prevent the situation from worsening, there are measures that can be taken to lower your chances of being affected by SAD.
Simple, healthy choices can be made to ensure that your life is balanced. Regular exercise, more exposure to sunlight and planning your schedule in advance to prevent stress are lifestyle decisions that are essential to keeping SAD as far away as possible. Be aware of your bodily conditions, give yourself a break when your body is telling you to.
Ways to Combat SAD
As with many other medical conditions, consulting a doctor is a viable and practical decision for those struggling with SAD. Doctors may be able to prescribe antidepressant medication, if required. Don’t worry, this seems to only be necessary for the most severe cases. The most effective treatments for minor to moderate cases are therapy-based — from professional health counselling to self-implemented methods like light therapy. Phototherapy, or daily exposure to bright light, may cause chemical changes in the brain to improve one’s mood, and 60-80% of those who have used this treatment have found it helpful.
At a more abstract level, SAD as a medical condition must be normalized so that those suffering from it can acknowledge its adverse effects and seek help, and meanwhile, those surrounding the individual may lend a hand wherever they are able to. Normalizing SAD will spread awareness that it’s a real condition that affects many, and will open up the dialogue to create a supportive, open environment that can help reduce feelings of isolation and depression for those suffering from its symptoms.