SAD: Myths vs Facts

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

This article was written by Anushka Shorewala.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD, is a disorder where people go through periods of being “sad or not like their usual selves” as the seasons change. SAD is generally linked to a decrease in sunlight during seasonal changes; consequently, it is most prevalent during the winter months.

Even though it is estimated that 10 million people experience SAD in the United States, few people have a good grasp on the truth of this disorder and many fall for its many misconceptions. As such, it is important to know the facts about what it is like for someone with SAD.

Myth

SAD is just a negative mood that people can snap out of.

Truth

SAD is not a negative attitude or a bad mood, but a real disorder deserving of treatment. In fact, abnormal changes in the brain signal the physiological differences in those who experience SAD.

When the seasons change from summer to winter, one starts witnessing shorter daylight hours and less sunlight. These environmental changes impact people’s sleep cycles, which is also known as the circadian rhythm. According to the American Psychiatric Association, this significant change in the body’s internal clock is the root of the chemical imbalance in the brain that causes SAD.

Since environmental and physiological changes form the root of SAD, one cannot simply “snap out of it”. Rather, SAD can be an incredibly confusing disorder for people who experience it personally and tangentially through their loved ones. This type of stigma can prevent people suffering with SAD from seeking professional help. When people neglect treatment for any mental disorder, they are at risk of worsening their physical and mental health, including the possibility of substance use (which can be fatal).

Myth

Only females experience SAD.

Truth

SAD is four times more common in females than males; however, males are still susceptible to SAD.

There are various reasons that account for the disproportionate amount of females compared to males who experience SAD. However, the main explanation relates to hormonal differences between males and females. During an interview with the University of Utah, women’s health expert Dr. Kirtly Parker Jones explained that women have more estrogen than men, which affects other hormones like serotonin and melatonin. Lack of exposure to sunlight during seasonal changes results in a reduction in vitamin D, also impacting both serotonin and estrogen levels. This serotonin deficiency directly influences people’s mood and happiness. Similarly, changes in melatonin levels can negatively impact our sleep cycle, resulting in depressive episodes.

Myth

SAD only occurs during the fall and winter months.

Truth

Although SAD is most common during the later half of year, patients can experience it at different times. In fact, 10% of people with SAD experience it during the summer months. This is especially true for people in countries closer to the equator.

While decreased sunlight exposure has been linked to reduced serotonin levels, too much sun can be detrimental as well. Increased sun exposure can lead to an excess amount of melatonin production, which can create hormonal imbalances and disrupt people’s circadian rhythms.

Dr. Ian A. Cook, the director of the Depression Research Program at UCLA, discusses other possibilities that can lead to SAD during the summer:

  • Disrupted Schedule: Having a routine is key to dealing with depression; however, summer can interrupt that schedule, which can be stressful.
  • Body Image: During the winter, people tend to wear layers of clothes, but during the summer, the layers come off to accommodate the hot weather. People feel embarrassed to wear shorts, dresses, and swimming costumes around others, which can negatively influence the socializing people do during these months.
  • Financial Burden: With summer comes the burden of summer camps, baby sitters, and vacation. Summer can become very expensive, which can result in financial stress on parents.

Myth

Lightbox treatment is always effective for SAD.

Truth

It is true that lightbox treatment can be incredibly effective in treating SAD. Dr. Jones, for instance, says that, “[the] number one [treatment] is phototherapy or bright light therapy in the mornings, and this has been shown to be effective in decreasing symptoms in up to 85% of women with Seasonal Affective Disorder.”

Although it works for some people, it doesn’t work for all people. Bright Light Therapy (BLT) is a therapy system used to help people with SAD. BLT is a light therapy where patients use a light box that simulates light similar to a natural light. Doctors generally recommend sitting in front of the light box in the morning for 20–90 minutes. Researchers believe that this works because it can cause chemical changes in the brain that can result in an uplifted mood.

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are various other options people with SAD can use to improve their symptoms. Patients with severe symptoms of SAD could benefit from medication, such as antidepressants to prevent their depressive episodes. Psychotherapy (specifically, cognitive-behavioral therapy) could aid patients in coping with the internal and external manifestations of SAD. And lastly, participating in activities that promote mind-body connection, such as yoga, meditation, guided imagery, or music and art therapy, may also have a positive impact on the state of one’s SAD.

The myths that surround SAD could be detrimental for people who experience it. For that reason, it is important for everyone to know the facts regarding SAD. That way, if someone ends up experiencing this disorder, they will know they are in need of proper help.

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