Shining a Light on Seasonal Affective Disorder
With fall approaching the Midwest like a freight train, our days are getting shorter, and our nights longer. It will soon be the Northern Hemisphere’s turn to watch green turn to brown and, in some places, to white, as snow covers the barren ground.
The weaker sunlight and cooler temperatures, the graying of the days, and the prospect of snow don’t bother me, but they do bother my wife. Transplanted to Iowa years ago from a sunnier state, she begins dreading winter with the first cool breeze of September. She doesn’t like this change of seasons, but she copes with it. (“Just barely,” she chimes in from the other side of the room.)
Yet, for some people, the lack of sunlight and cooler temperatures are more than just a mild annoyance; they cause a deep depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
There’s my friend (we’ll call him Jim), for example. I just say the words “cabin fever,” and he gives me a look like the walls are closing in on him. He starts getting really grumpy in early October and by Halloween, he’s so depressed, all he wants to do is cry or sleep. If he had his way, he’d hibernate all winter. Some years he takes antidepressants.
SAD is a very real problem for Jim, and for thousands of others. MayoClinic.com lists a host of symptoms for fall/winter SAD. (While researching this article, I was surprised to learn that there are other types of SAD, too: summer-onset SAD and Reverse SAD. But that’s another story.)
Mayo’s list of winter-onset SAD symptoms include the following:
- Loss of energy
- Social withdrawal
- Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Difficulty concentrating and processing information”
So what causes some people to get depressed and feel all those miseries about winter when others, like me, enjoy it?
“Experts are not sure what causes SAD,” says WebMD, “but they think it may be caused by a lack of sunlight. Lack of light may upset your sleep-wake cycle and other circadian rhythms. And it may cause problems with a brain chemical called serotonin that affects mood.”
SAD isn’t something to be taken lightly (no pun intended). For sufferers, the symptoms are very real and can be debilitating. The best thing to do is to seek advice from a trusted health care provider.
One of the most commonly recommended treatments for SAD is light therapy — with full-spectrum lights — which, by the way, hasn’t been approved by the FDA as a treatment for SAD. (Why would the FDA bother? Light therapy isn’t supported by a drug company. But don’t get me started on that topic.) Other treatments include medications and psychotherapy. Unless someone stares at a bare bulb for a long time, I’m guessing that light therapy has the fewest potentially harmful side effects.
Confession time: I admit that I wasn’t always convinced about the reality of SAD, or even about the beneficial effects of light therapy. Maybe because I didn’t experience it myself, I wondered if SAD was real. I admit, too, that I chuckled a bit at the idea that just shining a lamp on somebody could change their attitude. But watching the suffering of my friend Jim has helped me open my mind. I get it now. And I want to help him (and my wife) have a more positive experience with winter.
Recently, someone introduced me to a full-spectrum light. It’s not yellow, like most overhead lights. It looks like daylight in the middle of the night. When I first showed it to my wife, she couldn’t stop saying, “Wow!” So I’m giving one to her and one to my friend Jim. We’re going to try a drug-free approach to handling the coming winter. (I might just sit in front of it myself for a while, to see if my attitude toward shoveling snow improves.)
Do you or anyone you know have SAD? What do you do to cope?