The winter months can be a real drag. The days get shorter, the air more frigid, and everything, including our metabolism, seems to move a bit slower. With the blistering cold of winter digging its claws deep within our Northface-lined souls, it seems only natural to stay indoors, sleep, hibernate and/or cry like a baby until March 21 sluggishly approaches.
Many people experience some range of winter depression, from being cranky at the thought of having to bundle up extra before heading outdoors to planning month-long vacations to bail out on the entire winter season altogether. While the ‘winter blues’ may be natural and normal to some extent, a small percentage of people suffer from a more serious depression that occurs every winter and to the same excessive degree.
Sonia Khaleel, a 2006 MSU graduate, remembers when she first started noticing her winter-time depression. “I remember feeling that I was always moody, particularly during the month of February,” Khaleel recalled. “(I) guess you could call that the heart of winter, and I definitely felt the effects.” Khaleel, 22, planned a four-month vacation to India from late November until late March, to “purposely to avoid all of winter,” she said.
So what causes this wintry slump in happiness, excitability and motivation – this extreme version of the ‘winter blues?’ Psychologists refer to this condition as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or its more appropriate acronym – S.A.D. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (DSM IV) recognizes Seasonal Affective Disorder as a type of Major Depressive Disorder. Women have a significantly higher risk of S.A.D., making up nearly 70 percent of those diagnosed. The average age of onset for S.A.D. is around the early 30s, but as with most other disorders, there are cases of adolescent onset as well as occurences later in life.
A seasonal thing
Bobbie Heller, 26, was diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder two years ago. Already suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder for five years, Heller began to notice the signs of something else. “When the depressive symptoms started showing up, none of my doctors asked me about seasonal changes,” said Heller. “I ended up being the one that mentioned that I thought it might be S.A.D. and subsequently was diagnosed with it that day.”
Khaleel, however, has yet to be clinically diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder. She is “not opposed to getting diagnosed but it’s not a huge priority.” But she, as well as her friends, believe she has it. “It’s actually a bit comical and my friends are good-humored about it,” said Khaleel. “Usually I like to joke around a lot, so we treat this lightly, too. I try to remember it’s a seasonal thing when I get upset during the winter.”
What differentiates S.A.D. from normal depression is the predictable onset of symptoms, including a lack of energy, difficulty waking in the morning, increased cravings for food and subsequent weight gain, which begin to occur in late autumn and then disappear in early spring. The lack of an apparent cause for the depression also plays a role in achieving a diagnosis. The cause of S.A.D. lies somewhere between environmental factors and biological makeup. Most people experience a winter season throughout the year, i.e. cold weather, shorter days, influx of jackets, scarves, gloves and hats, but not everyone gets depressed. Those that do are extra sensitive to the amount of light exposure they receive, and since the days get shorter as winter arrives, thus reducing the number of hours of sunlight they are exposed to, they endure the depressive effects.
As a resident of Minneapolis, Heller bears the brunt of a cruel winter season. “I just want to curl up into a ball and sleep until it’s springtime,” she said. “I definitely sleep more during this time and am more emotional than in the spring and summer months.”
Ashley Elie, an interdepartmental social science-international studies senior, was diagnosed with Seasonal Depression in November 2005 at MSU’s Counseling Center. “[Seasonal Depression] is similar to S.A.D., but not as strong,” she said. “I had been feeling really poorly for a few weeks with no actual reason. I have the most trouble going to class. Since so few teachers take attendance, I can get away with not going if I don’t feel well that day, but it does hurt my overall grade because I’m not there for the lectures and I tend not to do any reading on my bad days.”
The science
The science behind S.A.D. is quite simple. Exposure to light has an affect on serotonin and melatonin levels; serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is associated with the sleep cycle and mood. The winter months produce less sunlight, altering the level of serotonin. “The lack of light makes serotonin levels decrease,” Dr. Elizabeth Rose said. Rose is a child psychologist at Genesys Hillside Clinic and also works within the Flint School District.

When serotonin levels are low, a person is susceptible to depression and disturbances in a healthy sleep pattern. Melatonin is a chemical that regulates the sleep cycle. According to psychology professor Laura Smale, longer winter nights lead to a greater feeling of sleepiness. “Melatonin is secreted from the pineal gland during the night, (and) more light inhibits melatonin,” said Smale.
“I can fall asleep and stay asleep and the quality of my sleep is great even, but for some reason I am still sleepy throughout the day,” said Heller. “This has been shown to be related to S.A.D., as it has something to do with circadian rhythm disruption.”
Maintaining healthy sleep patterns, also known as circadian rhythms, are crucial in deterring mood disorders. “[Circadian rhythms] influence everything,” said Smale. Humans have a natural wake-sleep rhythm of roughly 24.5 hours. “Everyday is shifted by about a half hour,” said Smale.
Sunlight, however, plays a role in shaping the rhythms as a natural cue of when to sleep and when to wake. So when winter approaches and it gets darker earlier, circadian rhythms get interrupted and people find themselves increasingly sluggish. “If you mess with your circadian rhythm too much, things can get out of sync,” said Smale. “It can lead to stress, you will die earlier, women have problems getting pregnant and staying pregnant and you are more susceptible to diseases.”
In the NEWS
However, S.A.D. sufferers are not bound to endure a bout of depression every time winter rolls around. There are ways to curb Seasonal Affective Disorder as well as the mildest form of the ‘winter blues.’ “It’s all about NEWS: Nutrition, Exercise, Water and Sleep,” said Rose. “They can balance each other. If you can’t exercise, eat better. If you don’t eat that well, go for a walk. You’d be amazed at how much better exercise can make a person feel.”
There also are external therapies that have positive effects on winter depression. Many researchers have found artificial light sources can brighten the moods of S.A.D. sufferers. In the light box therapy method, a healthy amount of artificial light is emitted from a lamp while a person sits in front of it. The light enters the visual receptors of the eyes, even without one staring directly into it, and signals are then transmitted to the brain to increase production of serotonin and to regulate the production of melatonin.
While the light boxes can improve symptoms, not everyone has the time or patience to sit in front of light for 30 minutes or more every day. Plus, they are not cheap. The light boxes usually range in price from $200 to $300, but may eventually be covered by insurance with some persistence. “I have received a prescription and applied for a light box through my insurance company three times in the last two years,” said Heller. “I have been turned down each time because of incomplete documentation. It’s very frustrating.”
Elie has also looked into sun lamps, but found they are too expensive. “When I have some extra money I’ll sometimes go tanning,” she said. “It’s a little difficult because I could use the extra light in the mornings, but most places don’t open until after my first classes start.”
There are also pharmaceutical drugs, such as SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), including Prozac, Zoloft and Lexapro, in which S.A.D. sufferers can experience beneficial effects, as the drugs’ main job is to increase the amount of serotonin in the brain. “I was offered Wellbutrin, but I decided not to take it,” said Elie. “I didn’t want to become dependent on medication.”
Heller has unsuccessfully tried a variety of prescription drugs for her depression and sleep disturbances, including Desyrel, Restoril, Ambien, Lunesta, Wellbutrin and Zoloft. “I ended up with my current drug, Remeron, one year ago,” she said.
Getting help
As with all forms of depression, counseling can help people with S.A.D. deal with the outlying tribulations of feeling down. There are many facilities on and around MSU’s campus that are willing and able to assist those seeking help. The Counseling Center, located in the Student Services building, provides consultations by appointment to students and can make referrals to Olin Health Center or other resources. “If you’re just feeling off or depressed or stressed, the Counseling Center is a really good place to start,” said Counseling Center psychology intern Jeff Lawley. To make an appointment with the Counseling Center, call 517-355-8270. Olin Health Center requires the initial referral to be eligible to meet with a psychiatrist by appointment.
Sparrow Hospital, in Lansing, in houses the Outpatient Behavioral Health Clinic on its campus in which psychiatric evaluation is available. For more information about Sparrow’s psychiatric services, call 517-364-7700.
The Women’s Resource Center is holding a S.A.D. awareness event, entitled “Beating the Winter Blues,” on Feb. 6 from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. in the Lake Superior Room of the Union Building. Lawley will be hosting the event, which is open to the public. “We’ll discuss what Seasonal Affective Disorder is and how to recognize it in yourself and your friends and also the different kinds of treatments that are successful,” said Lawley. He believes that students should be aware of depression because it is so common on college campuses.
“Over the course of a lifespan, one in four (people) will have at least one depressive episode, many with a seasonal component, especially in this part of the country,” said Lawley.
Moving on
Khaleel will not let her winter depression interfere with her future. “I don’t think it will shape my work plans. I will probably settle where a prospective job is or near my family, regardless of the weather.”
Elie is less certain of what is to come. “I’m a little scared about the future,” she said. She has plans to move to New York City, although claiming it would be better to move to a sunnier location. “New York is the only city in the United States that I have felt a connection to,” said Elie. “Hopefully I’ll find a job that allows me to wake up after the sun is out or [one that] will pay me enough to get a sun lamp.”
Heller makes daily efforts to curb her depression. “I turn on all of the lights in my apartment at dusk; I try to be alone as little as possible; I try to watch more comedies than say, horror or mysteries; I try to spend more time with family and to laugh,” Heller said. “I am not looking forward to dealing with S.A.D. for the rest of my life. It is a bothersome, needless condition. I just hope that as I delve into more natural (or) alternative treatments that I will find something that works.”

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