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Wintertime wellness: Dealing with seasonal affective disorder

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For those who are not natives of the Pacific Northwest, or simply not familiar with living in this environment, autumn and winter can quickly seem a gray and inescapable wasteland. Day after day of rain can get old quickly: last year, Seattle broke its 1895 record for most rainfall between October and April, dumping 44.67 inches of rain on its constantly soaked denizens. It would take 40 years to rain that same amount in Yuma, Arizona. Having sunny days only 28 percent of the time in the winter months in Seattle isn’t exactly encouraging data for people who prefer nicer weather. 

Dreary weather can spawn a plethora of health issues that become particularly relevant to UW students and faculty. Seasonal affective disorder, known commonly by the apt acronym SAD, is a mental health condition induced by gloomy weather. What’s more, natives of the region or those of similar climates are not exempt from experiencing these “winter blues,” and many who have lived here their entire lives are just as susceptible. 

SAD is a subtype of depression that presents itself most often in the fall and winter months and begins to wane as the sun gradually returns for spring. There’s another type of SAD that seasonally inverted, with depressive symptoms manifesting in the summertime. Clearly, SAD has the capacity to highly alter its victims’ lives. 

A few UW students shared their personal testimonials about their experiences with seasonal affective disorder:

“I deal with major depression all the time, [SAD] just manifests as … I get lower days more often, I’ll feel less energized, feel compelled to stay in bed more often, and then occasionally when it is sunny I’ll get more amped than normal,” said junior Tessa Achevarra, who hails from Olympia, Washington. She has experienced SAD for several years. 

These symptoms are typical for people who experience SAD. Hypersomnia, social withdrawal, overeating, and craving carbohydrates are all common symptoms of SAD, in addition to typical major depressive disorder symptoms. Being in the particular climate that we are can put people who already battle with depression and other mental health conditions at a certain disadvantage for a sizeable chunk of the year. UW students and faculty, from Seattle or not, should take extra care to prevent themselves from getting weighed down by the weather. 

Unfortunately, the causes of SAD are uncertain to this day, and the main key to prevention is an understanding of the cause.

One theory suggests that people with SAD overproduce melatonin. Daylight triggers our brains to wake up, just as darkness triggers it to power down. It does this through the release of melatonin in our brains which makes us grow tired. In the winter months, when the days are skewed so that daylight is scarce and darkness is plentiful, it can affect our circadian rhythms, or our biological clocks. This may account for the lethargy experienced by victims of SAD. 

Other studies have found that those with SAD have a particular genetic difference that causes their brains to have more of a serotonin transporter protein in winter months than in summer months. While this may seem contradictory to what would be assumed, an increase of this protein actually inhibits the use of serotonin in the brain. 

Vitamin D is a more obvious culprit. It’s an essential vitamin that we get from sunlight and from certain foods that is involved with serotonin production. When the sun isn’t around as much, vitamin D isn’t either. 

So what can be done? “For seasonal affective disorder, as for other types of depression, the benefits of regular exercise and a healthy diet cannot be overemphasized,” Dr. Pamela Sheffield said in an article she wrote in 2014 for The Whole U. “Unfortunately, I hear from many people that they work out until it starts raining which is exactly when exercise is most needed. A daily walk is a great start, or you can take advantage of the many opportunities for indoor and outdoor recreation that the Pacific Northwest offers year-round.” 

A lesser-known resource available to students to help with SAD is light therapy. People can make appointments with the UW Counseling Center to use a light box that produces 10,000 lux, a unit used to measure light intensity. That’s about 20 times brighter than normal room lighting. Numerous studies have shown the efficacy of sitting in front of a light box for about 30 minutes a day to ease the symptoms of SAD, with most people seeing improvement one to two weeks after starting light therapy and maintaining consistency. Hall Health Center offers this service as well and, at both locations, it is completely free of charge. 

Senior Eleanor Guthrie, who grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, is all too familiar with seasonal affective disorder. At a latitude where the winter months bring 20 hours of darkness and four hours of daylight each day, SAD can be a prevalent worry in her community. 

“I think it’s definitely a problem,” says Guthrie. “My family at least did a lot of things to prevent it. We take vitamin D supplements every single morning in the winter … We do try to take a vacation in the springtime to get away, to go to Hawaii or something, California or somewhere warm to get a break from it all.”

In line with Dr. Sheffield’s recommendations, Guthrie stressed the importance of staying active in a time where all you might want to do is hibernate under a down comforter. While she hasn’t dealt with SAD herself, many members of her family certainly did. 

“I think that when it’s so dark outside, people tend to stay inside more, and it’s cold and people tend to get holed up in their homes, get a little cabin fever, go a little stir crazy,” Guthrie said. “But my family was always really active — we go cross-country skiing, my dad and I got really into snowboarding a couple years back, sledding — just as many things as we can do outside.”

Luckily for Fairbanks, the summer is a big payoff in that the inverse of daylight becomes the norm: 20 hours of daylight and only four hours of darkness. 

Lucille Cousin, a junior, lived in the Bahamas for five years prior to coming to the United States in her junior year of high school. Cousin has felt the effects of SAD for the past several years. 

“I never felt it until I moved to Seattle, that’s for sure,” Cousin said. “It’s harder to get out of bed, harder to do anything. I definitely feel it every year, as soon as it starts raining, as soon as it gets greyer outside … Even the rain wasn’t that big of a deal, I think just the fact that it’s so grey outside… When I lived in the Bahamas it was constant sunshine, so that transition was definitely a difficult one.”

Cousin’s mother and sister experienced their migration to Seattle similarly. This points to a gendered element of SAD as well: it’s diagnosed four times more often in women than in men. 

“And this is true for most mental disorders, but giving in to it makes it worse,” Achevarra said. “Giving in to wanting to stay in bed, giving in to the lack of motivation makes it worse. I tend to, when it’s rainy out, close all my blinds and not look outside, but I think that can be even worse.”

Whatever the state of your mental health, it’s worth being conscientious of the effects that fall and winter can have on a person, especially in Seattle. Be mindful of how you respond to the season, and how the people around you do too. Not everyone’s mood reflects the dismal weather as it changes (and plenty of people enjoy the rain), but for some people, falling leaves can mark the arrival of a somber season ahead. Knowing the options that help alleviate the winter blues could make all the difference for them. 

Reach writer Kendall Upton at Twitter: @KendallSUpton

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