Sitting at a small table in the back of the Women’s Lounge in the Union, Kim Shaffer closes her eyes and tilts her head up toward the window. The sun’s warm rays shine down on her face, making it easy to forget the bitter temperatures lingering outside.
[try] Though she appears asleep, interior design senior Shaffer is taking in the sunlight to elevate her disposition. “I once heard that standing in front of a sunny window and closing your eyes for a minute will boost your mood,” Shaffer said. “And in the winter you’re inside all day, so I find it to be soothing.”
The cold air and cloudy skies can make anyone feel gloomy during the winter months, but for some people it causes severe mood changes, known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). People affected by SAD suffer from symptoms of depression during the fall and winter months, such as Mike*, a criminal justice junior at MSU.
[sun] Although no official cause has been determined, the National Mental Health Association reports a link between SAD and melatonin, a hormone released in the brain that may be attributed to symptoms of depression. Produced in higher amounts in the dark, officials believe the darker winter months cause increased production of melatonin.
“A major symptom is a shift in their mood,” said Dr. John Lee, a psychologist at the student counseling center. “And the mood is just how you feel about yourself and about life. So, it’s not just whether you feel happy or sad.” As with depression, changes in appetite and sleeping patterns are also symptoms of SAD, but these actions subside during spring and summer months. “Pay attention to your appetite,” Lee said. “Has it increased or decreased? Is there a change in your weight?”
Mike went to a therapist in January of his freshman year, because he noticed an extreme decline in his mood, and he had also gained 20 pounds. “I ignored the weight gain at first, I thought it was just the ‘Freshman 15’,” he said. “But I was rude to my friends and family, and I didn’t want to socialize or leave my room. My mom finally suggested I go talk to someone about my feelings.”
So how is SAD treated? “If someone thinks they have the disorder, they need to see a professional,” Lee advises. “There’s a variety of ways you can deal with it once you get a professional assessment. The professional recommendations will vary depending upon the perspective.”
Common treatments include medication, therapy and self-help books. A newer method is the use of full spectrum lighting that simulates sunlight in a dim room. “The lights help to replace the lack of the full spectrum of the sunlight getting into your eyes, providing vitamin D,” Lee said.
In addition to sessions with a psychologist, Mike finds running outside to be extremely therapeutic. “The majority of my day is spent inside, at class and work, so the hour I take to jog outside is important to me,” he said.
While more women seek treatment, Lee believes men suffer from SAD just as often. “There’s a huge biological component to SAD and I can’t see men necessarily having a different chemistry with regards to how they respond,” Lee said.
Mike agrees with Dr. Lee in that a lot of men suffer from SAD. “Guys are less likely to admit to something like depression becuase they want to appear emotionally stronger.”
For those who suffer from SAD, Lee siad the mental disorder does not necessarily last a lifetime, although there are some cases that do. “Only one third of the people might deal with it all the time,” Lee said.
But in the mean time, he suggests preparing for the season ahead of time in addition to therapy.
*last name not provided upon request of the source.