An estimated 10 million American adults each winter suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a widespread yet often misunderstood condition.
As winter tightens its grip, Jessica Allen finds herself caught in a challenging battle against time, mood, and the bleak Grand Rapids winter. The shorter days and long nights bring more than just the cold to Grand Rapids — they usher in a period of lethargy and isolation for Allen, symptoms of a condition commonly known as SAD.
The American Psychiatric Association says that approximately 5% of the population suffers from “Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern,” a significant mental health concern that transcends personal struggle.
Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder
Katie Parker, MA, LPC, defines SAD as, “a type of depression that emerges during the darker months, characterized by symptoms such as depressed mood, fatigue, and a lack of motivation.” Parker goes on to say, “The limited sun exposure can create vitamin deficiency, disrupt our natural circadian rhythm, and impact the production of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin, which can contribute to SAD.”
This condition is more than a simple aversion to winter; it signifies a substantial mental health challenge, with women being disproportionately affected — four times more likely to suffer from SAD than men, with the condition typically manifesting in individuals aged 20 to 30.
The Geographical Influence on Sad
Geography is one of the most significant risk factors, with those living further from the equator at higher risk. This geographical variance highlights the need for awareness and tailored prevention strategies across different states.
Research, including a recent study by MattressNextDay, highlights the stark geographical differences affecting the prevalence of SAD in the United States. With Alaska at the top of the list, scoring a striking 74.25 out of 90 on the weather factors index, the study reveals how extreme variations in daylight contribute significantly to SAD.
States like New York, Washington, Vermont, and Michigan also emerge as high-risk areas, with their harsh winters and limited sunlight exacerbating the condition.
In the heart of winter, cities like Seattle see less than 8.5 hours of daylight, and the impact of SAD becomes impossible to ignore. A Seattle resident, Alec Sills-Trausch, shared his thoughts about Pacific Northwest winters: “When our clocks change in mid-November, our sunset is at 4:45 p.m., and it gets worse through the winter solstice.
“I know many people who go to work in the dark and come home in it, too. I've found that you must maximize your weekends outside, enjoying the sunlight if you have it and forcing yourself to walk at lunch.”
Recognizing the Symptoms
SAD's symptoms are diverse but commonly include increased sleep, loss of interest in activities, social withdrawal, and carbohydrate cravings. Dr. Judith Zackson, a clinical psychologist, emphasizes, “SAD is a true form of depression…the condition manifests differently across individuals, underscoring the importance of recognizing these patterns and seeking help early.”
Another Washington resident, Rylee Muir, echoes Sills-Trausch's sentiments, detailing her annual struggle with the condition. “Each fall, I tell myself it will be different… And yet, it is the same every year,” Muir laments. She describes a cycle of needing excessive sleep and experiencing a significant drop in activity levels as the days grow shorter.
Strategies for Managing Sad
Despite its challenges, effective strategies exist for managing SAD. Parker advocates consulting health care providers for vitamin assessments and potential supplementation, particularly vitamin D, during winter. Light therapy, initiated in early fall, can significantly alleviate symptoms for up to 85% of those affected.
Medication, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and lifestyle adjustments — such as exercise, healthy eating, and staying hydrated- are additional approaches to combating SAD.
Using her professional insight and personal experience, Ruth Larsen LMHC offers practical advice for those coping with SAD. “I use a smart bulb to simulate sunrise, ensuring my home is filled with light,” Larsen shares. Natural light exposure and activities that offer respite from the winter gloom, such as winter vacations to sunnier locales are essential.
Along with adjusting sleep patterns and trying light therapy, experts offer other tips to help combat the effects of SAD:
- Exercise. Even 15 minutes of light exercise can boost endorphins and positively affect physical and mental health. Walking the dogs, exploring nearby parks, or even walking to the mailbox can help.
- Eat healthy. Proper nutrition can significantly improve your body function and make coping with SAD easier.
- Stay hydrated. Dehydration can worsen a bad situation; drink as much water as possible.
- Be social. Isolation can make any type of depression worse, and SAD is no exception. Reach out to friends for coffee, lunch, or a short hike.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs. Your focus during this time should be on positive habits and maintaining optimum health.
- Take vitamins. Vitamin D is essential to those suffering from symptoms of SAD. With less exposure to the sun, your body isn't receiving the vitamin D it needs. You can obtain vitamin D through light therapy, supplements, or dairy products.
- Get out of town. Winter is the best time to go somewhere sunny and break from the cold and dreary weather. Popular destinations include the Caribbean, the Bahamas, Florida, and Mexico.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) represents a significant, albeit manageable, challenge. As we navigate the darker months, prioritizing mental health and embracing supportive measures are essential. Understanding, awareness, and proactive intervention are vital to battling SAD and fostering a supportive community that looks forward to brighter days ahead.