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The winter depression: seasonal affective disorder

With summer now just a distant memory, we must bid farewell to the long, sunny days that filled us with joy. We will grow to miss the crunchy orange leaves which blanketed the ground making the fields burn with colour, eating the odd ice-cream because it was still pleasant enough to do so, and the warm romantic evenings that autumn has given us. We have become accustomed to waking up to the pleasant sounds of the summer birds outside our windows, begging for us to get up. We will no longer be able to get away with a simple jumper for warmth, or getting back from our seminars before the sun starts setting and we are left with darkness. The mere sight of seeing anyone wear less than a jacket, scarf or jumper will turn you red with anger.

But why, you may ask, are we being deprived of such sweet things? Why have we got to say goodbye to the sun and warmth we hold so dear? What have we done to deserve this horrible change in weather?

Well, the answer is simple: Winter is coming. But some people have more to worry about than the odd cold or stuffy nose. The sudden change in climate can influence people’s behavior and emotions on top of affecting people’s physical condition. The ‘winter blues’ is a serious problem, and it can leave people feeling helpless, alone and depressed.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as Sad) is a very common depressive disorder that only occurs during the winter season, and almost always disappears once the weather starts getting better again. It is most common in the winter, as the days get shorter, there is less sun and we are less able to do things outdoors. Around 6% of people around the world suffer from seasonal affective disorder, and 20% of people report having a mild version of SAD; perhaps feeling a little down or slightly less motivated and disinterested in things during the winter.

The most common symptoms one experiences when suffering with Sad are very much like the symptoms for clinical depression: lack of energy and motivation to complete everyday tasks, loss of concentration and having sleeping issues, feeling sad and lonely, having anxiety attacks, experiencing mood swings, overeating as a form of an emotional binge, loss in sexual libido and alcohol or drug abuse as a form of self-medication. These symptoms, as one can imagine, can take their toll on our mental and physical health over time, along with hindering our academic performance at university. It can affect our relationships with others, causing tensions and disagreements as we are not feeling 100% ourselves.

The exact causes of Sad are relatively unknown as changes in the weather and daylight can affect people in different ways. Everyone’s brains work differently. However, there are many theories as to why seasonal changes may trigger this depression and anxiety in some people. One theory is that the lack of natural lighting causes our bodies to stop functioning properly as the hypothalamus (the part of the brain that receives messages) is not getting enough messages from the retina (back of the eye). When it is sunny outside, light hits the back of our eye into our retina and transmits signals to the brain. These signals control how much we sleep, eat, our sexual drive, our mood. So, when there is a lack of lighting outside, the amount of messages travelling to our brain decreases, causing mental instability and the symptoms listed above.

A change in our ‘body clock’ could also be a reason as to why people experience Sad. Some say that people who have to deal with the condition haven’t got a ‘body clock’ that can adapt to the changes in light that a new season provides us, and so begins to slow down. This irregularity is also seen with the levels of serotonin in our brains. People experiencing Sad or some sort of depression have been found to have lower levels of serotonin than they should do. Serotonin is our ‘happy drug’, the chemical in our brain that controls our moods and keeps them in balance. So when our brains are not producing enough serotonin, this is when people start experiencing mood swings or very long periods of feeling depressed and low.

For those who experience symptoms of Sad at the mild end, most probably many current readers, there are many ways in which depressive symptoms can be alleviated during the winder period, and ways in which you can help yourself. One way would be to allow yourself to experience more natural lighting. Go for a walk during the day, which will help alleviate stress, get some fresh air and allow your brain to take in more light. Exercising and participating in sport outside is also a massive bonus, as it helps increase energy levels and produce the chemical dopamine. Eating a healthy diet also allows this increase in energy, and taking in more B12 has been noted as helping some people with Sad symptoms. However, if these natural remedies don’t seem to work, you could always consider purchasing a light lox. The light box helps give you more light (obviously) throughout the day, and so increasing the level of serotonin in your brain. Using it for two to four hours a day has had positive reviews and results, and can help alleviate symptoms in the long run.

If you start experiencing some of the symptoms mentioned, the most important thing is to talk to someone. The university provides great counselling services, although even just talking to a friend can help. Winter doesn’t have to be a bad time, and Sad and its symptoms can be defeated.

03/11/2015

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