It’s 4 p.m., and the trek home from the last class awaits. It has been a long day of school and enduring being cooped up in classes. All that is anticipated is to relax with friends over some outdoor activities. But upon exiting the building, darkness is the only welcoming element.
“It’s only 4 p.m.,” many might think to themselves. “How can it already be dark?”
Americans are currently facing this issue as daylight runs out quickly and darkness triumphs the winter season. People envision themselves surrounded by light, but as the darkest season of all sets in early, they are only encompassed by the night sky.
This lack of light causes many to struggle with seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD.
What is SAD?
SAD is a diagnosable form of depression caused by a lack of light during winter. There are approximately 10 million cases of these “winter blues” in the U.S. each year, according to a Boston University study.
“(SAD is where) people experience feelings of sadness and low energy, especially around the winter months when the days are the shortest,” said clinical psychologist Dr. Emily Kurlansik in an interview for Saatva. “SAD is marked by its seasonal mood fluctuations.”
According to the American Psychiatric Association, many symptoms of SAD are similar to those of major depression, such as loss of energy, changes in appetite and sleep, difficulty thinking and more.
Fernanda Castaneda, a sophomore studying environmental geoscience, is currently dealing with SAD and some of these symptoms.
“I felt highly motivated at the beginning of the semester,” Castaneda said. “But as the weather got colder and the days got shorter, I feel miserable and highly unmotivated to do anything. My morning classes are harder to attend, and all I want to do is lay around and stream all 18 seasons of ‘Grey’s Anatomy.'”
Anyone can experience SAD, but it occurs most commonly in ages 18-30 and further from the equator, since those areas receive less sunlight in the winter.
Antoine Jones, a sophomore studying sociology, also feels the effect of the daylight ending so soon.
“The daylight ending a lot quicker has affected me because it gets dark super early,” Jones said. “The cold weather affects me greatly and causes me to feel less productive.”
The psychology behind SAD
SAD is linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain caused by a shortage of daylight in winter. A lack of light often causes a lack of vitamin D. With the seasons switching, people also tend to shift their biological internal clock, the circadian rhythm.
When circadian rhythms are altered and sunlight disappears, people’s health becomes affected. This change disrupts the balance between serotonin, a hormone that stabilizes happiness, and melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep cycles. A surplus of melatonin will usurp the lack of vitamin D and serotonin, causing exhaustion and burnout to triumph the human body.
The most common treatment for SAD is light therapy, as increased exposure can help improve symptoms. It is recommended to expose oneself to the sunlight and other conditions such as artificial light lamps if natural light cannot be accessed.
General wellness is also advised. Regular exercise, healthy eating, getting adequate sleep and staying active can help.
Seeking professional help can also be beneficial. Professionals can distribute proper medication and provide ways to cope with depression.
“I believe SAD can be helped by involving yourself in some of your favorite activities,” Jones said. “I find my happiness by doing what I love most: roller skating. Happiness is about doing what you love and loving what you are doing, no matter what it is.”
You are not alone
If you are experiencing feelings of severe depression and/or suicidal thoughts, help is available. You are not alone. You can choose to stay.
If there’s an emergency and services are not available immediately, locate your nearest emergency room for help, or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.