I feel it coming on already. I’ve learned to recognize the subtle symptoms, after years of experience, where in the past I didn’t even notice I was in the throes of it until afterwards. Like being in the middle of the woods, you don’t see the forest for the trees until after you’re out. The lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, total lack of motivation to do anything except get drunk, becoming completely withdrawn from friends, family & loved ones, being emotionally unavailable to those who mean the most to me, turning into a solitary hermit, irascible moods with a short temper and even shorter patience, all signs that I’m beginning to experience seasonal affective disorder, or as it’s more commonly, and very appropriately, referred to, it’s acronym, SAD. I feel not only changes to my emotional state, but my physical body as well. I develop a near insatiable appetite, with relentless cravings for the worst possible foods, filled with fat, salt, and sugar, all preferably delivered with a hearty dose of carbohydrates, to a level that no amount of pizza or sweets could satiate, as my body tries to pack on winter weight, preparing for the hibernation that won’t come. My normal negative and pessimistic outlook toward life is escalated to a near ludicrous degree. The morose feelings of hopelessness and pointlessness are ever present, constantly weighing me down like a heavy wet blanket that cannot be cast off. All this, and the seasons have just begun to change. It’s barely the beginning of fall. But to me, the first day of fall might as well be the middle of winter. As soon as the temperature begins to drop, and the days begin to get shorter, something inside me is triggered, something uncontrollable, like the changing of the seasons themselves. This is a depressing thought to a total control freak like me, just one more thing in life that I feel powerless to change. It’s a strange thing to feel your self so greatly affected by the seasons, in the same way that the tides are dominated by the gravitational force of the moon’s orbit. I am not cut out for the short, chilly, grey days of the winter months. Things seemed much more tolerable in the summer, with the long, hot, brightly lit days, and the sun’s warmth to elevate my moods. But those times are fleeting, and I’m already feeling overwhelmed by the change of the seasons, even though the worst is yet to come.
In a lot of species physical activity is diminished in the winter months as a response to lack of available food and general difficulty surviving through cold weather conditions. One severe example of an adaptive behavior to survive harsh winter weather is hibernation. Although many species that do not hibernate still exhibit behavioral changes during the cold months. It has been suggested that SAD is a variant or a remnant of an evolved adaptation to a hibernation response in a distant human ancestor. A low mood which would reduce the amount of physical activity, and therefore reduce the caloric intake required would be beneficial during periods of scarce food supply. There are various theories as to what exactly causes SAD. The most common is that it is triggered by lack of sunlight, which occurs during the shorter days of winter, with its increase of cloudy grey skies, and less time spent outdoors. This may explain why there are higher rates of diagnosed cases in higher latitudes, and areas with primarily cloudy, rainy climates. There is proof of a more substantial link between low levels of light exposure and diagnosed cases of SAD, than there is with colder temperatures and SAD. Some theories conclude that SAD is related to a lack of serotonin, while others conclude that the cause may have something to do with melatonin, which is produced by the pineal glad during dim light or darkness. There is a direct link between the pineal gland and the retina of the eye. The pineal gland is a small endocrine gland in the vertebrate brain. It produces the serotonin derivative melatonin, a hormone that affects the modulation of wake/sleep patterns and seasonal functions. One argument for this theory is the success of bright light therapy in treating SAD. Light therapy uses a lightbox which emits far more lumens than an ordinary incandescent lamp. However, many people find lightbox treatment cumbersome and inconvenient and stop using it, after all, who has the time to sit in front of a bright light everyday for 30-60 minutes? The depressing feelings of SAD can usually be assuaged by increased outdoor activity, and exercise, especially on sunny days, but those can be hard to come by in the winter. And even more so for a person like me who works all day in a windowless office, and doesn’t get off work in the evening until the sun is setting during winter months. Links between mood, as well as energy levels, and solar exposure are well documented, even in people who don’t consider themselves depressed. Another possible explanation to the cause of SAD is that Vitamin D levels get too low when people do not get enough Ultraviolet-B on their skin, from solar contact. Vitamin D supplements are one possible alternative to light therapy; however some studies have shown no direct correlation between mood alleviation and Vitamin D. There are a variety of other possible treatments for SAD, other than light therapy, none of which seem particularly accessible, like medication, ionized-air administration, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and carefully timed supplementation of melatonin.
According to the American Psychiatric Association DSM-IV criteria (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition), SAD is not regarded as a separate disorder. It s called a “course specifier” (specifiers are extensions to a diagnosis that further clarify the severity, or special features of a disorder or illness) and may be applied as an added description to the pattern of major depressive episodes in patients with major depressive disorder or patients with bipolar disorder. So apparently most people who are affected by SAD are already severely depressed, or bipolar, which I suppose makes sense. But knowing and recognizing the symptoms, and knowing the possible causes doesn t really make it any better. At least now I can acknowledge when and why I m feeling so morose, where as in the past it was not so apparent to me. One recent winter in particular was excessively bad, I slumped into a dark depression and became very withdrawn from everyone, and neglected a person and a relationship that meant a lot to me, but I didn t even notice what I was doing at the time. She eventually grew tired of putting up with my melancholy and ennui, and we parted ways, through no choice of my own. There were, of course, other factors involved, but I feel like it may have been possible to work those out if I hadn t become so emotionally unavailable, which exacerbated and accentuated all the negative aspects. So it goes. I can t go back and fix the past, but at least now I am more in tune with my body and my moods, and I can acknowledge the changes, anticipate the cycles, and try not to let them wreck things for me quite so badly. At least in theory, anyway.