As gray winter months knock at our doorsteps, some are vulnerable to their mood turning south with the bitter weather and waning daylight.
Because of the northern climate, colder temperatures and reduced daylight in the winter, many people in Wisconsin are vulnerable to seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a form of depression that occurs seasonally, most commonly in the winter, Distinguished Psychologist at University of Wisconsin Health Dr. Shilagh Mirgain said in an interview with The Badger Herald.
“I think many people find that they have a lower mood, which doesn’t necessarily mean clinical depression, but I think many people struggle with just feeling kind of blue, down and lower motivation,” Mirgain said. “Especially in the January, February months where we can have those blizzards and many gray days ahead.”
SAD is distinct from clinical depression in that it will not occur year round, but it is more than simple mood swings. Those with SAD will experience loss of interest or pleasure where they typically find joy for at least two weeks during a particular season, Mirgain said.
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About four to six percent of Americans experience SAD while ten to 20 percent see some milder form, Mirgain said. The demographics at greatest risk are younger people 18 to 30 and women.
This may be due to more frequent doctor visits from women and increased stress of life changes at the younger ages.
“That age group goes through a lot of significant life changes and more than probably any other age group such as going to college, leaving home, first job and living on your own,” Mirgain said.
Entering winter in 2021, the pandemic will be an added stressor that could factor into seasonal affective disorder.
According to a recent survey from the American Psychological Association, about one in three adults reported struggling to deal with day to day decisions due to pandemic related stress. The younger generations experience this the most, as 48% of millennials and 37% of Generation Z reported this type of stress.
“Overall rates of depression and anxiety have increased during the pandemic,” Mirgain said. “When we add in winter and the colder months ahead that sort of compounded factor can make people vulnerable to slipping into depression.”
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UW Associate Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry Jack Nitschke began his career conducting research on images of brain regions involved in anxiety and depression. Now he works entirely with patients struggling with depression and anxiety, and he commonly deals with SAD around this time of the year.
Decreased exposure to sunlight is the cause of SAD, Nitschke said in an interview with The Herald. Still, the winter has other compounding factors that correlate with lower motivation, such as colder weather or even the holiday season, which may be associated with added stress and pressure for some.
“SAD is not caused by the cold per se,” Nitschke said. “The cold can lead us to get less exposure by just staying inside more, and for some people they really dislike the cold, and maybe that kind of bums them out and gets their mood down.”
Effective methods of treating SAD aren’t very different from treating clinical depression, Nitschke said. One of the best ways to combat SAD and other forms of depression is exercise and physical activity, but these may be difficult to instigate due to lack of motivation and the cold temperatures in the winter. Nitschke works with his patients to develop an exercise plan and persist with it throughout the winter months, even if that means adapting to the weather.
Another good way to treat this condition is getting out of the house to engage in social activities, Nitschke said, and also falling on social support by making contact with friends, family and neighbors in your community.
One treatment unique to SAD is called light therapy, which provides an antidepressant mechanism by exposing the retina to light. Nitschke recommends those struggling with SAD to get a “happy lamp” of 10,000 lux, which is easily accessible, and start turning it on for at least 30 minutes a day as early as September.
Nitschke stressed the importance of trying to get outside and be active in the winter months and especially investing in a happy lamp to deal with some of the symptoms of SAD. Mirgain said people struggling with motivation and mood and experiencing distress should seek professional help — it’s important to get help with the appropriate treatment for mental illness.
Nitschke entered the field out of concern for the suffering that comes from mental illness. He said these issues have faced a historical stigma surrounding these illnesses, discouraging professional help and telling victims to deal with it on their own.
“That’s just a gross misunderstanding of how these different conditions work,” Nitschke said. “Anxiety and depression are as physically real as any physical illness.”
Editor’s note: If you are struggling, there are several free services on campus to support your health and wellbeing. University Health Services offers group counseling sessions, 24-hour crisis services, processing spaces, individual counseling, drop-in services through Let’s Talk and workshops. Call 608-265-5600 to schedule an appointment.