Finding Light in the Darkness: Dealing with Seasonal Depression

Marilyn found herself beaming with glee as she moved to Madison, Wisconsin for a long awaited job opportunity. Spending all her days conducting research for her work, she was delighted when she had finally found the job of her dreams. The summer months came and went quicker than she could enjoy them and as the fall and winter months approached, Marilyn found herself struggling to focus due to declining energy levels. What used to be a sense of excitement for the new day ahead had slowly turned into a constant sense of somber and slumber. Marilyn began struggling to get out of bed and often showed up to work late. She just did not have the energy or desire to get up and get things done like she did before the Thanksgiving holidays.

As winter months traded sun for snow, Marilyn found herself craving the warm desire to crawl back into her bed as soon as she could get home. Each morning started with a heavy sense of despair and each night an escape into the comfort of her pillow and blanket. All Marilyn wanted to do now was sleep. When spring sprang upon her, her mood was lifted with an emergence of vibrancy once again. Not thinking too much of it, Marilyn supposed she just had a tough first year in a new city. But when the same experiences consumed her mind and body the next year, she decided to visit her doctor.

Shortly thereafter, she was diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, also known as seasonal depression. Everything she had experienced suddenly began to make sense.

Seasonal depression, clinically known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a form of depression that is seasonally recurring and centers primarily on a sad mood and low energy levels. SAD actually feels sad. It predominately affects women who make up

60-90% of the people diagnosed with SAD. Symptoms may include being tired, irritable, difficulty concentrating, increased desire to sleep, decreased physical activity, episodes of crying, withdrawal from social situations, reduced sex drive, increased crave of carbohydrates and sugars, and an increase in weight gain due to overeating (b, c, d).

Symptoms commonly begin in the autumn, peak in midwinter and subside in the spring. Those living in the northern most latitudes are most likely to be subjected to experiencing symptoms of SAD. In essence, the closer you live to Alaska, Canada, the UK, Russia or North Korea the more likely it is you may experience seasonal depression. This is due to climates having less sunlight and colder winter months. The average duration of a SAD episode is approximately 3.9 months (a).

The exact cause of SAD is unknown; however, there are several contributing factors including the seasonal change of light, which affects internal circadian rhythms and secretion of the hormone melatonin, genetic inheritance, and diet (a). Thus, a reduced amount of natural sunlight can cause changes in the body's circadian rhythm, affecting mood, energy levels, sleep, eating patterns, focus, and attention. A decrease in exposure to sunlight has also been shown to extend the production of melatonin, which functions to regulate sleep cycles. 

Additionally, it was reported by the University of Virginia in 2008 that consideration of the strong genetic component to SAD not be overlooked. The melanopsin gene, which is a light-sensitive protein that is believed to originate in the retina of individuals is not concerned with vision, but can be linked to non-visual responses, such as circadian rhythms, hormones, alertness and sleep. These mutations may cause some individuals to be predisposed to SAD. Individuals who carry two copies of this gene mutation will have a higher probability of experiencing the disorder.

SAD may also impair one’s ability to function at work causing additional depressive symptomology. Reports of excessive guilt, crying spells, negative self-talk, and a general lack of follow through and completion of common tasks become the norm. People who experience SAD often prefer to be socially isolated and may experience somatic complaints of their body such as headaches, muscle aches, and other flu-like symptoms (b).

There are several medical conditions that can mimic SAD, such as hypothyroidism and hypoglycaemia and viral illnesses such as Epstein Barr infection and chronic fatigue syndrome. A full physical examination to include a review of your blood count, thyroid levels, a metabolic panel and liver function, and a pregnancy test has been suggested to ensure general medical conditions aren’t of contribution (a).

Reported treatments to managing symptoms include light therapy, diet, exercise, psychotherapy, relocating to warmer climates, and antidepressant medication. If interested, you can learn more about these treatments by conducting a thorough online review or by contacting your primary doctor.