Kinstler: Spooky season, sweater weather and seasonal depression

Ethan Kinstler, Staff Writer

Well folks, it’s that time of year again. Temperatures are dropping, days are getting shorter and pumpkin spice and cinnamon fill the air; while sweater weather certainly brings with it some great fashion options, it also signals the onset of seasonal depression.

Officially known as seasonal affective disorder, and affectionately shortened to SAD, SAD is a specific type of depression that follows a change in seasons and occurs during the same time every year—usually beginning in fall and ending in the late winter months.

SAD affects about 5% of adults in the United States and is not something to be shrugged off. Seasonal depression is far more than not wanting to get out from under the warm covers in the morning; it very closely mimics clinical depression and can be just as distressing for those struggling with the disorder.

It’s normal to have ups and downs in your day-to-day mood, just like a rollercoaster. However, when that roller coaster seems to be stalled at the bottom of a hill, it could be time to consult a doctor. Therefore, it’s paramount to monitor your mood as the winter months set in. If, as the temperature drops, and your spirit does too, it might be a sign that you have SAD. Other things to notice are becoming reclusive, not eating, sleeping more or having trouble falling asleep, trouble concentrating on simple tasks or difficulty motivating yourself to get work done. These are all ways your body could be telling you that you’re struggling with seasonal depression.

Like all mental health disorders, SAD does not have a single root cause that can be pinpointed and diagnosed. The risk for the development of SAD is compounded by a genetic predisposition for the disorder, as well as certain environmental factors, such as distance from the equator. Additionally, having a pre-existing diagnosis for bipolar depression or major depressive disorder can also increase the risk for SAD. Therefore, if your parents struggle with SAD, you struggle with depression already and/or you live somewhere cold, like Cleveland, where come October, sunlight is scarce, you could be at an elevated risk for developing SAD.

Furthermore, it is also possible that a drop in temperature and less sunlight during winter months can affect the body’s natural circadian rhythm, as well as serotonin and melatonin levels. A disrupted circadian rhythm and melatonin level would account for a shift in your sleeping patterns. At the same time, a disruption in serotonin could explain the change in mood, motivation and concentration, as serotonin is largely responsible for controlling agitation, aggression and increasing concentration. 

Don’t worry though, having an elevated risk for a disorder is not a guarantee that you will develop the disorder; it is just helpful to be aware of your various risk factors to better evaluate your mood for the aforementioned behavioral symptoms.

Still, if you do find yourself feeling more like a zombie than you had anticipated this Halloween, there are several treatments for SAD. While symptoms do typically go away on their own when the temperature rises and winter turns to spring, targeted treatments can alleviate symptoms more quickly. 

First, invest in a sun lamp. Known as light therapy, sun lamps emit powerful light, more potent than an ordinary lamp, mimicking sunlight. Sitting in front of a sun lamp for as little as 20 minutes a day has been shown to improve the mood of patients struggling with SAD during the winter months.

Like any mental disorder, talk therapy is another option you might want to try. Because seasonal depression is a temporary mood change, not typically resulting from a previous traumatic experience, it might be best to look for a therapist specializing in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT techniques like cognitive restructuring, which I’ve covered extensively in previous articles, aim to diagnose current patterns of thinking that are not serving us well to change our behavior. Since SAD is a change in our everyday behavior and mood, CBT could be the most productive technique over a more involved style like psychoanalysis—which primarily focuses on how negative experiences in our past manifest themselves in our current behavior.

Additionally, when we get a nice day in Cleveland where the sun is out, try to make the most of it. Do whatever you can to soak up the sunlight, such as working in front of a window.

Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out. We all experience the same seemingly unpredictable Cleveland weather—seriously, what the heck is “lake effect snow” if not witchcraft—so chances are you’re not alone.