Dealing with the winter blues

Sarah Rice, Guest Reporter

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Just because Elvis Presley had a “Blue Christmas” doesn’t mean that you should also spend the holidays in a winter slump. Seasonal affective disorder, a mental illness linked to depression, however, can make the winter months seem dark, lonely, and endless.

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, falls into a subcategory of depression experienced by around 16.8 million Americans. SAD, while similar to depression, is unique in its own way by repeatedly occurring for only half of the year. Most people experience SAD during the fall and winter months, however it it still possible to be affected during spring and summer.

The majority of those impacted by SAD begin to experience symptoms around the change in daylight savings time, usually in late October or early November. No exact cause for this disorder has been discovered yet, but numerous scientific theories exist to help make sense of it.

Medical professionals and the National Institute of Mental Health most widely accept the notion that sunlight, or lack thereof it, plays a large role in the development of SAD. Serotonin, the chemical responsible for happiness, shows increased levels in the brain when exposed to vitamin D, a vitamin largely given off by sunlight. With less hours of natural light during the winter, the body struggles to make enough serotonin. The darkness replacing the sunlight is also known to stimulate melatonin, a bodily chemical responsible for regulating sleep. Too much melatonin can disturb the sleep cycle and make the body sluggish and apathetic.

SAD can be recognized through similar symptoms to those of depression, including low energy levels, social withdraw, feelings of hopelessness, hypersomnia, and irritability. Of course, the signs and symptoms vary from person to person just as the extremity and impact of the disorder varies from person to person. Noticing the symptoms of SAD, whether in yourself or in someone else, is the first step towards getting help and taking control of the problem.

The best way to approach this illness is by telling a trusted individual about it, whether that means a friend, family member, teacher, or other adult. Creating a strong support system reassures your own strength when overcoming any adversity.  Despite what you may hear or think, there is no shame in wanting to better yourself; your emotions and concerns are valid. And while SAD is a more unfamiliar mental illness, it is no less important than any other illness.

Thanks to advanced research, technology, and programs, treatment for SAD is a realistic possibility for anyone suffering. For some people, self-treatment has proved successful in curbing their symptoms; light therapy is increasingly popular and involves special types of lamps which emit light similar to that of natural sunlight. Vitamin D supplements could also replace the lack of natural sunlight. Exercise, with its ability to boost serotonin production, offers itself as another simple way to manage SAD. For other cases, more serious measures need to be taken. Antidepressant medication can sometimes be prescribed by doctors, and cognitive behavioral therapy allows self-expression and exploration with a certified therapist. It is normal for some treatments to work better than others, as each person and their needs differ, so sometimes it take more than one try before finding what works for you.

Throughout the overwhelming holiday season, remember to acknowledge and care for your mental health. Whether that involves seasonal affective disorder or not, self-care is never selfish.