Every year, as the days shorten and the sun goes away, many individuals find their mood dropping, sometimes to debilitating lows.
“I find myself stricken with panic and exhaustion that has nothing to do with my job or my personal life and everything to do with one simple environmental factor,” says Emma Philipps. She is referring to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that occurs for certain months of the year, typically beginning during fall or winter time.
An individual experiencing the disorder may feel exhausted with no motivation to do anything. They may try to do something productive, however, whatever it is one intends on doing, it is likely for them to end up crawling back into bed, feeling useless and low. SAD affects about 4 to 6 percent of people. It can be relentless and have a serious impact on their life as well as on their family and friends.
“I have mild depression,” writes Derek Sherry. “I don’t know what caused it or when I first knew I had it, but I know now.”
It is not clear what the exact causes of the disorder is, however, researchers believe that the reduced light during the cold seasons could be one of them. When light enters your pupils and hits the back of the eye, it communicates with a part of the brain called hypothalamus which controls a person’s appetite, sleep, temperature, mood and far more. If a person is not receiving enough light, those functions that the hypothalamus control can decrease and eventually stop.
For people who suffer from SAD, the change in seasons can greatly decrease their energy and cause mood swings. Derek Sherry writes, “[symptoms are] harder to fight off because I get used to feeling sad more often that I forget I can stop it.” Most of the time, they will feel depressed, agitated and some may experience thoughts of suicide. “[The suicidal thoughts] terrified me. I would be at the top of a flight of stairs, and the thought would come unbidden into my head that it would be a good idea to hurl myself downwards,” states Emma Philipps.
During these painful, depressing episodes, sufferers may experience fatigue with heaviness in their legs and arms, and may also frequently oversleep during these months. “My sleep schedule suffers—either I want to go to bed far too early, or the confusion causes me to stay up far too late.” The insufficient amount of sleep alters the individual’s physical appearance and can affect their weight and appetite.
These changes can be very difficult both for the person experiencing seasonal affective disorder, and for the people around them. It can hurt many relationships because a sufferer’s mood can change so suddenly and unexpectedly. To a significant other, it could feel like waking up beside a completely different person. Their energy level lowers, they don’t laugh at jokes as much, show as much enthusiasm or be interested in seeing the people they love. This can make family and friends feel rejection and disappointment. They worry about the sufferer feeling absolutely alone and question what the future holds for the person that once took pleasure in life. Those who suffer from SAD consistently isolate themselves, staying at home and disengaging from events. It may be challenging for others to cope with someone experiencing SAD; however, we can’t control the way others feel. Family and friends may fight to not take anything personally, but can still feel agitated, lonely, and like there is an absence in their life.
Not only does SAD lead people to withdraw from the people around them, but also their career and hobbies. Their career is impacted by the disorder because it becomes difficult to manage responsibilities and sustain effort at work. They could have worked hard for a long time only to find their career at risk when the season changes.
“As with all mental illnesses, the more we talk about seasonal depression, the more people will understand and accept it,” says Emma Philipps.
It is exhausting, but there are ways to cope and treat the symptoms. Medication can help prevent the distress that the disorder offers. However, it can take many weeks before results are noticeable. Therefore, it is important to have patience. Another option is light therapy, where one sits 12 to 18 inches in front of a special light box for 30 minutes to an hour. It uses 10,000 lux of fluorescent light and it has to enter your pupils in order to work. It is said by researchers that using a light box will make one feel better after 1 or 2 weeks. Going to psychotherapy and talking to a therapist may also help a lot. They can assist by figuring out ways to cope with the SAD symptoms as well as provide techniques for relaxation, such as yoga, to build up energy that was lost.
SAD is, unfortunately, not something one can cure. However, wanting to know how to improve and having the will to live healthier in every season is a sign of power. With the support of family, friends and proper medication, an individual can get through the winter blues.