Longer nights do not always mean more fun. As the days get shorter, many people find themselves battling the wintertime blues. But for some the drive to stay indoors and curl up in bed is not just to avoid putting on a hat and gloves. Although most people notice a little weight gain and lethargy, people with seasonal affective disorder cannot adjust to the darker winter months.
Allison Conn knows that winter blues are easy to come by. The 14-year-old was diagnosed with SAD three months ago.
For Conn, winter means feeling “helpless, like everything is really bad, kind of heartbroken and isolated from everyone, but without a reason.”
“I had been noticing a pattern – flashes of depression. I would always try to talk it through, but there were no specific events that would make me so depressed,” Conn said.
The disorder, caused by overproduction of the sleep-related hormone melatonin, is characterized by regularly occurring depression during the fall and winter, with the “worst symptoms occurring in the darkest months,” psychologist Maria DeVito said.
Researchers found certain amounts of light affect brain chemistry. Because melatonin is produced at increased levels in the dark, some people may have too much in their bodies during the winter months.
Some students who have not been diagnosed with SAD feel the affects of shorter hours of daylight in the District. “In the winter time I usually get depressed because it gets dark really early so I don’t really want to go out,” senior Sarah Weintraub said. “It’s dark and it’s really cold, so I usually stay in my room a lot. The only way to get over it is to keep more active in the daytime.”
Sophomore Cole Buerger, from Colorado, also notices the effect the change in weather and light has on his mood.
“Its ridiculously dreary in the winter,” Buerger said. “Colorado is so much better – sunny skies – I miss it so much.”
People suffering from SAD may feel despair, misery, hopelessness, guilt, anxiety, sadness, emptiness and frustration over normal tasks. Changes in sleep may also occur. They may not be able to get out of bed, require a nap, or sleep often but never feel refreshed. People with SAD often feel as if they are too tired to cope and that everything they do is an effort. Another symptom is craving sugary or starchy foods, which may lead to weight gain.
For most people, these problems resolve in the spring. Some people have mild or occasionally severe periods of mania during the spring and summer months.
Although SAD is considered by the American Psychiatric Association as a subtype of a major depressive episode, its symptoms are atypical of most depressions. Instead of decreased appetite, sleep and weight loss, people with SAD experience the opposite.
According to the National Mental Health Association Web site, although the disorder can affect anyone, young people and women are at the highest risk for the disorder, with 70 to 80 percent of those diagnosed being females.
The most common age for onset is early to mid 30s. Twenty-five percent of people in the United States suffers from mild winter SAD, while five percent have a more sever form of the disorder. Doctors believe that right now, the disorder affects more than 10 million Americans, according to the Web site.
Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a psychiatrist practicing in the District who first identified SAD in 1984, found there is a connection between an “individual’s innate vulnerability and her degree of light exposure,” according to his research.
For example, if a person feels fine in D.C. all year, but moves to Washington State, they could develop SAD, Rosenthal said. Another person may experience symptoms of winter blues in D.C. and when they move to Florida, may be fine all year long.
Dr. Daniel Liberman, a psychiatrist, said people living farther from the equator have a greater chance of developing seasonal affective disorder due to the fewer hours of daylight.
Treatment is available for those who suffer mildly or severely. For mild symptoms, working in a sunlit environment or spending time outdoors may relieve symptoms. Exercise also may benefit people with SAD. One study showed that an outdoor walk for an hour might be as beneficial as a two-and-a-half-hour session under artificial light.
People who experience more severe symptoms may use a light treatment called phototherapy. Although research has shown that phototherapy suppresses the production of melatonin, it may not always relieve depression.
“Light therapy has worked for the majority of my patients,” DeVito said.
The device most commonly used is a light box that shines very bright light through a filter. Patients sit with the box for about 30 minutes a day, though the time varies from person to person. The user is meant to allow the light to reach their eyes, although they do not have to stare at the box. The light devices cost about $250 to $500 and usually often are not covered by insurance, Rosenthal said. Some people like to use the light as a “dawn stimulator,” increasing the light at intervals.
Conn, who uses a light box to ease her SAD symptoms, has found mixed results.
“The lamp acts as a substitution (for natural light) to make me feel happier,” Conn said, who admitted that although the lamp did not cause “immediate happiness,” she said it may help her in the future.
Other GW students said they are able to fight the winter blues themselves.
“When it does get damp and dreary, it does tend to annoy me a little bit but I get through it,” sophomore Ighosime Oyofo said.