The Science of SADness

Before we talk about what seasonal affective disorder (SAD) isn’t, let’s talk about what it is.

Seasonal affective disorder is a varietal of depression confined to the fall and winter months. 

It affects primarily women, and primarily those with other psychiatric conditions, like manic depression or bipolar disorder. (This doesn’t mean that men aren’t affected, or that you have to have another condition to experience SAD systems. Just that you’re more likely to if the previously mentioned criteria are met.)

As of 2019, it affects 10 million Americans, with a separate 10% of the population experiencing milder symptoms of a junior SAD disorder.

If you’ve never heard of it before, ask yourself a few things…

When the seasons change, and the days get shorter, and the darkness drapes itself like a weighted blanket over the light, and even feeling the air outside is painful and bleak, and the thought of leaving your bed in the morning makes your eyes well up with tears…

You may be a candidate for seasonal depression. Symptoms include:

  • Sustained misery over days/weeks
  • Low energy/apathy
  • Oversleeping
  • Overeating/weight gain
  • Abnormally high craving for carbs
  • Hibernation
  • Social isolation.

Anhedonism and the Sunlight Suggestion

What makes SAD a different subset within the garden-variety depression heading is that it’s characterized by an unusual anhedonic attitude — or, a generalized apathy and disinterest in things which formerly gave them pleasure.

There’s a suggested reason for that.

Individuals with SAD tend to overproduce a certain protein, called SERT, whose function is to carry serotonin, your make-happy chemical, from its production center to its distribution center. Having too much of SERT means that too much serotonin is being drawn away from the brain, resulting in feelings of depression. 

Now, the sunlight of the summer months helps to keep SERT levels in check. That’s why winter can really mess with your chemistry.

And on top of that, having SAD often leads to an overproduction of melatonin, your make-sleepy chemical, which responds to darkness by sending your body off to sleep. 

When you combine the two, what you get is a fundamental change in your circadian rhythm, or the clock by which your body functions. Because of the imbalance in those two primary circadian chemicals, your body doesn’t respond as pertly to seasonal changes.

What Can You Do?

To combat the symptoms, you could seasonally take SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) the way that someone with regular depression would counteract the effects of their disorder. 

Because vitamin D deficiency is an active contributor to SAD, you could take vitamin D supplements as well, or use sunlamps to make sure you’re getting enough quality light onto your skin when the outside world is dark and cold. Make sure to talk to your doctor before starting any new medications or vitamin regiments. 

There is also evidence to suggest that hibernating during the winter months is natural for mammals, which certainly leads one to wonder why allowances aren’t made for it in mankind. So if you’d like to spend the winter catching up on your alone time, burying yourself in a depressive abyss, and meditating in silence, it’s most certainly your prerogative.

If you’d rather not lean into it or take medication, here are some quick tips for mitigating the effects of your SADness:

  • Read/watch/listen: Escapism is a powerful human tool. If the world around you feels empty and hopeless, go to a different world! Get lost in a book, in a new musical genre, in a comforting fictional realm.
  • Allow yourself comfort: If you’re craving carbs and coziness, let yourself have it! Remind yourself to counteract the effects of being sedentary and eating excess carbs by prioritizing indoor activities, and getting your NEAT (non exercise activity thermogenesis) count up. This refers to all of the energy you expend when you’re not sleeping, eating, or doing sports-like exercise. 
  • Be with happy people. It can be hard enough to keep your own spirits up without being asked to lift those of your social group. Try to spend at least some of your time around people who either don’t experience SAD, are naturally jolly, or are otherwise cheerfully disposed.
  • Get your body heat up. Take hot baths, drink hot tea, eat hot soup. Throw epsom salts in the bath, make sure the tea is herbal, and try bone broth in your hot soup. That means cozy blankets and thick wool socks too! 

SAD is not a death sentence, nor is it an emotional anomaly.

It’s real, rooted in science, and totally navigable.

Treat yourself gently and with ease. 

While SAD is a common cause for the winter blues, the holiday season is especially hard for some people. Join Dr. Pedram Shojai for a talk about healing emotional trauma. We are all carrying unnecessary emotional baggage and it’s slowing us down from living our desired lives.  
Register now for free to watch this discussion on Healing Emotional Trauma.

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.