A bad case of the 'winter blues'

Feb. 5, 2005, midnight | By Yicong Liu | 15 years, 11 months ago

For many students, the arrival of autumn marks the simultaneous end to summer vacation and the return to school. For junior Jocelyn Dowling, however, autumn means more than just a surplus of homework. Beginning this season, she feels an increasing depression settle into her mood. The diminished sunlight in the fall and winter months robs her of her normal ambition, replacing it with a sense of apathy and lethargy.

Dowling's winter mood swings are no coincidence.

According to psychiatrist Carol Watkins, a serious case of "winter blues" is a major depressive disorder affecting around five to eight percent of Americans. For those with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the changing of the Earth's seasons can have a dramatic effect on mood and ability to function. A mild case of SAD known as "winter blues" strikes an enormous portion of the population as well. For those with SAD and winter blues, however, the impact is manageable.

The symptoms of SAD include depression, lack of energy, increased need for sleep, a craving for sweets and weight gain, according to Watkins. Symptoms usually begin around fall, increase during the winter, wane in spring and disappear by summer.

For Dowling, who attributes her depression to a mild case of SAD, winter translates into a noticeable decrease in her activity. Whereas she normally savors the outdoors during the summer and has attended summer camp for six years in a row, Dowling avoids the outdoors as much as possible during the winter.

SAD is distinguished above milder winter blues and other forms of depression by a persistence of these symptoms for at least two weeks. According to AP Psychology teacher Julia Smrek, these symptoms must outnumber symptoms in other seasons and in any other non-SAD episodes in the individual's lifetime.

Research on SAD has revealed decreased exposure to sunlight in the winter may be the underlying factor for this disorder. Dowling also cites the lack of sunlight as a trigger in her own experiences. With increasing latitudes, the difference in sunlight exposure between summer and winter also increases and results in shorter winter days.

According to the MadSci network, sunlight is believed to play a role in emotions through the production of Vitamin D3 and serotonin, an important neurotransmitter that is significant in determining mood. Low or inadequate levels of serotonin contribute to depression. Scientists believe individuals with SAD are genetically less capable of making serotonin molecules on their own and as a result, are more sensitive to the decrease in sunlight that normally fuels the production of the chemical.

SAD cases occur most frequently among women, and the normal onset of the disease is in the 30s. Despite the late onset, children and adolescents have been diagnosed with SAD, and according to Smrek, they are especially at risk for SAD. In particular, SAD symptoms are tied with bipolar disorder. Children who show signs of SAD are often considered for future development of bipolar disorder, says Watkins.

In rarer incidences, SAD can take the form of a related summer depression where opposite preferences prevail. Sophomore Colin Forhan, who was told by his therapist roughly three months ago that he most likely has SAD, simply can't stand the sunshine. Whenever his parents vacation to beaches and summer resorts, Forhan opts to stay home and indoors. Instead, Forhan thrives in the winter and enjoys fierce weather like pouring rain, crackling thunder and flashing lightning.

For both Forhan and Dowling, the early signs of seasonal depression failed to elicit any alarm. Dowling has always had a strong attachment to summer and has always believed others shared her opinion. And, though Forhan's winter over summer preference is significantly less common, he still perceived himself as normal. "At first, I didn't think it actually was considered a condition," he says. "I just thought I liked rain and storms."

Once Forhan learned of his condition, he had difficulty understanding the opposite perspective. "I never understand why other people don't like rain," he explains. "A lot of times people say it's because they get wet, and that's exactly what I like about [rain]."

Though Forhan and Dowling were never given specific treatments, SAD patients often undergo some form of light therapy, says Smrek, where they are encouraged to expose themselves to high-voltage lamps and sunlight as much as possible.

Both Forhan and Dowling have managed to keep their seasonal depression symptoms at a manageable level. Forhan can still enjoy outdoor activities during the summer with a bit of conscious effort. "With a certain amount of willpower, I can control those feelings," says Forhan.

Having learned to cope with her other depressive disorder symptoms, Dowling too, has kept away from professional counseling and medication for her seasonal mood swings. "I had my life under control," she says.

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Yicong Liu. Yicong Liu is a junior in the magnet program at Blair high school. She enjoys the many (I mean many) wonderful things in life, but mostly the fundamentals: food, sleep and fun. During the hectic school week, Yicong can be found staring at her computer … More »

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