Taking SAD Seriously: An Informational Article

Winter impression of Oberbaumbrücke in Berlin. (Credit: Jackson.)

Rumours of a fast-approaching and fickel Berlin winter are making their way around the BCB campus. These rumours are not unfounded. With the rotation of the earth and Science, days are growing shorter and colder; light is growing less and dimmer as the sun is shrouded behind unknowably dense, grey clouds. The happy symphony of autumn has fallen to a barely audible whisper. Only occasionally does one hear the murmur of dry leaves as they skitter across the grey pavement, or the rustling of yet unfallen points of colour as the ominous wind whistles past. If we want to be optimistic, we could say the greyness is making way for the possibility of the cleansing white of snowfall, and that the silence is in respect of the oncoming holiday cheer.

But what if we don’t want to be optimistic? What if, with the draining of life and light from the earth and the bleaching of its colours, one begins to feel more than a little blue? [Read on to find out what then…] If you’ve endured such a drastic seasonal change before, you likely know what I’m talking about. If you come from somewhere where seasons are less inspired variations of one another, as they are in countries closer to the equator, you’ve probably already guessed that people might be crankier than usual in the upcoming months. Of course, most of us will get by just fine, and we will all have days when we’re just not feeling so great. But what if you begin to feel not so great more than occasionally? What if you get… SAD?

Yes, I think we need to address the serious question of Seasonal Affective Disorder with a bad pun: Why do people get SAD this time of year? More importantly, what is SAD, how do you know if you have it, and how can it be prevented and treated? Everyone can benefit from having a little more medical know-how, but the new BCBers who are also new to the climate especially should listen up.

Most websites I consulted will give you the same basic answer as to what Seasonal Affective Disorder is.. As you have probably already guessed, it’s a type of depression that is related to the changing of the seasons. It is, unsurprisingly, less common in countries closer to the equator. One hip science website (no joke, it is a really cool website — you should check it out) will inform you that “In the U.K., about 20% of people can experience mild symptoms, called ‘sub-syndromal SAD.’ However, 2 percent can experience severe symptoms, which can seriously reduce their ability to function in everyday life.”

Symptoms and their severity vary from person to person, but the most common ones include having little energy, not being able to concentrate well, irritability, oversleeping, weight loss or gain, apathy to the outside world, anxiety, restlessness, and changes in sleeping patterns.

The cause of SAD isn’t known exactly. It is thought that it has to do with the change in daylight hours. Temperature isn’t what is relevant. One of the theories suggests that, as the days get shorter and the nights longer, our body’s circadian rhythm gets messed up. You might have heard about this already. The circadian rhythm is basically what tells you when to get up or go to sleep. Sleep itself is super important in regulating your mood. “Difficulty sleeping is sometimes the first symptom of depression” and irregular sleep patterns “may, in turn, contribute to psychological problems.” The production of melatonin, which is a hormone that helps regulate sleep, occurs when it is dark. With the half-light of day and the extended darkness of night, this trivia might explain why people with SAD feel more tired in the winter months. What’s more, the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter commonly associated with happiness, is reduced along with the daylight hours.

As per its definition, SAD must be recurring to be diagnosed as such, something which I think might not apply if you are coming from a different climate. If you do seriously think that you might have come down with a case of the winter blues, you should go see a doctor. Doctor Regling is on campus at her office in the student centre from 4-6pm every Tuesday. “Many doctors will recommend counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or taking specific type of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which help boost the amount of serotonin available in the brain.” A doctor might also recommend light therapy, which you could do at home as it is quite simple and unexciting. It involves sitting in front of a special type of light bulb that more closely mimics sunlight than regular bulbs. If you don’t quite want to take that step just yet or if you are interested in preventing SAD (and, I mean, who wouldn’t be?), other simple lifestyle adjustments like spending as much time as you can in the little sunshine that peaks out of the clouds, exercising regularly, and spending more time with people you love could really help. It’s contested whether Vitamin D supplements do help, but you should get your hands on some of those because the lack of sunlight means you’re probably deficient in it anyway.

I hope you keep all this in mind for the coming winter months and that you’re able to find things that bring you a different type of sunshine in the meantime.

Sources consulted:

  1. http://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/what-seasonal-affective-disorder-0
  2. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/basics/symptoms/con-20021047
  3. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/seasonalaffectivedisorder.html
  4. http://psychcentral.com/lib/10-things-you-dont-know-about-seasonal-affective-disorder/2/
  5. http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/need-sleep/whats-in-it-for-you/mood
  6. https://www.vitamindcouncil.org/about-vitamin-d/how-do-i-get-the-vitamin-d-my-body-needs

Disclaimer: The information on this site is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan. Bard College Berlin assumes no responsibility or liability for how readers of this site choose to use the information contained within.

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