Let there be light: Coping with seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Abigail Kastner
August 19, 2021
Black woman feeling depression symptoms alone at home.
Licensed from istockphoto.com

Although South Carolina is known for its sweet tea and sunshine, the bleakness of winter months still creeps through the idyllic Spanish moss. Rather than long stretches of sun-filled weeks, the turn to fall and winter is followed by colder temperatures and rain. A break from the intense humidity can be nice, but the sun’s absence weeks on end may take a stronger toll on some individuals compared to others.

If you start to notice energy levels dropping and a dampening mood affecting your daily life, the effect of the seasons changing might be more than just the “winter blues”. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a subset of depression that occurs as the seasons change, specifically with the decreased level of sunlight. About 5% of adults in the U.S. experience SAD, and it typically lasts about 40% of the year. Most people are diagnosed between ages 18-30, making younger adults most at risk for suffering from this disorder.

SAD affects those who live further north or south of the equator - which includes the entirety of the U.S. You might be thinking, with all the sun the southeast gets, do those living down here actually have a risk of developing SAD? The answer is more complicated than it seems at first glance.

Although it’s true that SAD diagnoses are seven-times more common in Washington state compared to Florida, this may mean when people in the south are experiencing SAD symptoms, they often dismiss or don’t recognize them. Therefore, people in sunny southern states not only can still develop SAD during the winter months, but also may be brushing it off in the process and less likely to seek diagnosis/treatment. 

"One of the most important factors in regaining control during these winter months is a strong support group."

-- Abigail Kastner

In addition to location, there are other risk factors that increase the susceptibility of developing SAD. Women are diagnosed with SAD four-times more often than men.  Family or personal history of mental illness increases the risk of developing SAD where approximately 55% of those suffering from SAD have a family relative that suffers from major depressive disorder.

The onset of SAD remains a mystery, but researchers point to the decrease in sunlight affecting the body’s circadian rhythms and the brain’s neurotransmitter levels. Lack of sunlight is linked to lower serotonin levels (the brain’s “happy” chemical), higher melatonin levels (the brain’s “sleep” hormone), and vitamin D deficiency. This can lead to many unpleasant symptoms such as feelings of emptiness and hopelessness, loss of energy and an increase in sleep-time, differences in eating, and a loss of interest in previously enjoyed areas of daily life.

Even when life seems to be moving more quickly than you are, it’s important to take time for yourself, especially when you begin to notice these changes. The importance of exercise, vitamins, and a support group are essential to coping with mental illness in addition to living the best life possible.

1.      Get more vitamin D
One of the easiest ways to reintroduce light into your life is by taking vitamin D supplements. It’s recommended that healthy adults take 1-2,000 IU of vitamin D daily. Another way is through making a conscious effort to eat lunch outside because even 20-30 minutes of peaceful sun exposure can make a difference. Vitamin D doesn’t just help regulate an individual’s mood, it also plays a role in allowing the body to absorb calcium. This is incredibly important as a study conducted in 2017 concluded that calcium supplements help reduce symptoms of sadness, mood swings and anxiety, which are also observed in SAD.

2.      Take care of your physical and mental health
Exercise is also a great way to combat the symptoms of SAD and maintain overall physical and mental health. In addition to holistic approaches, the use of appropriate medication can also help mediate the levels of neurotransmitters that are negatively affected by SAD. Arguably, one of the most important factors in regaining control during these winter months is a strong support group. Whether that support group is family, friends, colleagues or a licensed physician, communicating your feelings and struggles in a safe space allows for you to develop a game plan to combat the symptoms of SAD. For MUSC students, the University provides free counseling and psychological services (CAPS) to students and employees. Call CAPS at 843-792-4930 to schedule an appointment today.

3.      Talk to your provider about light therapy
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that those living in the U.S. spend roughly 90% of their life indoors away from natural lighting that can help combat SAD. Recent studies have shown light therapy improves overall mood, especially in people suffering from SAD. With this technique, individuals are exposed to roughly 10,000 lux of light – nearly 50-times more intense than indoor lighting and comparable to the brightness of a sunny day. Many individuals use this “light box” as they work or even during relaxing periods such as yoga and reading. If you feel as though this treatment option may be beneficial to you, consider discussing this with your healthcare provider.

No one should feel as though they need to navigate difficult seasons of life alone, especially while being a student; the feeling of loneliness adds another layer of stress. During the winter months, SAD is a real possibility and it’s important to advocate for yourself and take your mental health seriously – don’t just brush off those winter blues. Becoming more aware of your mental health and taking direct action against the symptoms of SAD will provide you with a toolkit of coping mechanisms to use year-round.