Is Seasonal Affective Disorder A Myth?

Updated May 08, 2019

Are you a lover of warm weather? Do you despise the cold? Perhaps the thought of winter makes you uneasy and sad? Do you ever wonder why winter makes you feel down? Certainly, the cold weather could play a significant role. But the cause of winter sadness could be deeper than you realize. Your "winter blues" could be Seasonal Affective Disorder. While many people claim Seasonal Affective Disorder is brutal in its existence, others argue the mental state is merely an old wives tail attempting to explain the human mind. This article will discuss what Seasonal Affective Disorder is, how it could and could not be true, and what treatments are available for those who feel they have it.

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What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Mayo Clinic defines Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as "a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons." Commonly, symptoms begin in fall and continue throughout winter. You feel as though you're drained of energy. Fitting with its acronym, you feel sad. The reason for these low feelings is the lack of sun exposure during the winter. People who prefer warm weather stay inside more often and don't get as much vitamin D from the sun. Sabrina Felson, MD reviewed a slideshow on WebMD stating, "Most people get some vitamin D from sunlight. When the sun shines on your bare skin, your body makes its vitamin D." After spending so much time indoors during winter, vitamin D levels drop. By the beginning of spring, people's vitamin D levels are so low they feel depressed. Once the weather warms up, they spend more time outside, and depression levels decrease.

Seasonal Affective Disorder As A Myth

As current psychologists dig deeper into the human mind, more studies show SAD is not a viable psychological illness. Megan Traffanstedt, Sheila Mehta, and Steven LoBello of Auburn University at Montgomery published a study in Clinical Psychological Science arguing a lack of substantial evidence for the existence of SAD. "A cross-sectional U.S. survey of adults completed the Patient Health Questionnaire-8 (PHQ-8) Depression Scale" which is a study "designed to determine if a seasonally related pattern of occurrence of major depress could be demonstrated in a population-based study" (825).

The study questioned 34,294 adults ranging in age from 18 to 99 years. The PHQ-8 asked eight questions if and how often the participant experienced a particular depressive symptom during the previous two weeks.

The results showed that depression levels did not correlate with seasonal changes. Season, the latitude of residence with a season, nor sunlight exposure displayed a significant effect on depression scores.

Lobello, Mehta, and Traffanstedt even cited a report by Hansen et al. in 2008 which found no increase in depression symptoms by residents of northern Norway during a 2-month dark period of eternal night north of the arctic circle. Nor did the report claim a decrease in mental distress during the polar day of perpetual daylight.

"The idea that depression occurs along with seasonal changes or worsens in winter appears to be a well-entrenched folk theory" (832), the study claims.

Evidence Supporting Seasonal Affective Disorder

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On the other end of the argument, scientists continually find supporting evidence of SAD. Steven D. Targum, MD,and Norman Rosenthal, MD published an article in Psychiatry where Dr. Rosenthal states "Six percent of US population, primarily in northern climates, is affected by SAD in its most marked form. Another 14 percent of the adult US population suffers from a lesser form of seasonal mood changes, known as winter blues" (32). The pair also studied residents of Norway, like that of LoBello, Mehta, and Traffanstedt. However, Targum and Rosenthal found that 14 percent of residents in Oslo, Norway displayed symptoms of SAD. For comparison, only 4.7 percent of New York City residents exhibited symptoms of SAD.

"In fact," writes Dr. Rosenthal, "someone may have winter blues while living in southern climates and convert to full-blown SAD if he or she moves to a northern climate" (32). This study shows that geographic locations with more extended periods of constant darkness cause higher levels of depression as opposed to southern locations with more sunshine throughout the year.

In another study, Sue Penckofer, Ph.D., RN, Joanne Kouba, Ph.D., RD, Mary Byrn, BSN, RN, and Carol EstwingFerrans, Ph.D., RN, FAAN published an article in Issues in Mental Health Nursing discussing the relationship between vitamin D and depression. Their material further cites a study of 29 randomized patients divided into two groups - 16 with SAD and 13 controls. These patients received either one hour or 15 minutes of light therapy each morning for two weeks during winter, when SAD is most prominent. Depressive symptoms significantly decreased in the SAD group receiving one hour of the light therapy versus the control group. Again, another study supports SAD by showing that increased levels of light (and therefore higher levels of vitamin D) decrease symptoms of depression.

The Verdict

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While studies are suggesting Seasonal Affective Disorder does not exist, the numerical results of those studies still support SAD. Perhaps LeBello, Mehta, and Traffanstedt were looking for much lower levels of depression after their research. If the numbers were not as low as they wanted, they landed on grounds to argue against the existence of SAD.

The fact of the matter is, depression levels still decreased. Those results still agree with the results of the other studies discussed in this article. Dr. Targum and Dr. Rosenthal both found increases in depression during winter months with an emphasis on the comparison of Norway versus New York City. Sue Penckofer, Joanne Kouba, Mary Byrn, and Carol EstwingFerrans discussed patients with SAD reporting fewer symptoms of depression after attending light therapy treatments.

Therefore, while some scientists may argue against the existence of Seasonal Affective Disorder, compelling evidence in much more significant amounts continually supports its presence.

Finding Help For Seasonal Affective Disorder

Thankfully, Seasonal Affective Disorder has some treatment options. Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, is a popular treatment method where patients sit near a light therapy box which gives off a bright light, mimicking that of natural outdoor light. Patients may also attend psychotherapy sessions, also known as talking therapy, to release feelings of unease, anxiety, and depression. Antidepressant medications are also an effective treatment for SAD. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Citalopram (Celexa), Escitalopram (Lexapro), Fluoxetine (Prozac), Paroxetine (Paxil), and Sertraline (Zoloft) are common choices for depression symptoms. Doctors typically do not prescribe vitamin D supplements as the primary treatment for SAD. The supplement does not provide enough vitamin D to reduce depression symptoms. Vitamin D supplements are, however, prescribed with another medication to give an extra boost.

Additionally, a compelling new method of reducing Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms is to speak with a licensed counselor by using an online counseling service like BetterHelp.The BetterHelp mission is making professional counseling available, affordable, and convenient so that any person who might be struggling can attain help from anywhere at any time. 2,283 therapists are licensed, trained, experienced, and accredited psychologists, marriage and family therapists, clinical social workers, and board licensed professional counselors.

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The process to get started is simple and completed entirely online. For anyone who is struggling and finding it difficult to speak on the phone or in person, filling out online forms is perfect. Patients simply answer a questionnaire about their personality, and they match up with a counselor. Required details include gender identity, age, counseling you seek (individual, couple, or teen), sexual orientation, relationship situation, therapy history, overall physical health, sleeping habits, recent anxiety, depression, concentration, eating habits, and overall mood. The questionnaire asks questions with open-minded answers, such as a non-binary gender option.

After completing the questions (which takes a mere few minutes), patients match up with a counselor. Through the website or BetterHelp mobile app, people may send a message to their counselor whenever needed. BetterHelp counselors are gentle, caring, and take their client's feelings into strong consideration. And if it turns out that a counselor is not a perfect match for a patient, he or she may request a new counselor at any time. It's that simple!

There is no need to worry if a patient does not have insurance and isn't sure if s/he would be able to sign up. Insurance is not required to speak to a counselor.

There is no stigma attached to seeing a therapist in person. Being able to communicate via mobile app allows people privacy in their journey to better health.

In conclusion, Seasonal Affective Disorder seems to remain a viable explanation for "winter blues." While some scientists claim it is an old wives' tale, most scientists have proof it is real, and it is dangerous. If a person suspects he or she has SAD but is not sure where to start, BetterHelp online counseling remains a productive place to begin a journey to better health. From there, patients can speak with a licensed therapist and take steps to become a brighter person with a more fulfilling life. Check out BetterHelp.com for more information.

Sources

Felson, MD, Sabrina. "Slideshow: The Truth About Vitamin D." WebMD. 30 May 2018. https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/ss/slideshow-vitamin-d-overview

Lobell, Steven G., Sheila Mehta, Megan K. Traffanstedt. "Major Depression with Seasonal Variation: Is It A Valid Construct?" Clinical Psychological Science. Vol. 4(5) 825-834. 2016. Pages 825-834.

Mayo Clinic Staff. "Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)." Mayo Clinic. 25 October 2017. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651

Penckofer, Ph.D., RN, Sue, Joanne Kouba, Ph.D., RD, Mary Byrn, BSN, RN, Carol EstwingFerrans, Ph.D., RN, FAAN. "Vitamin D and Depression: Where Is The Sunshine?" Issues in Mental Health Nursing. Volume 31, Issue 6. 7 May 2010. Pages 385-393.

Targum, MD, Steven D., Norman Rosenthal, MD. "Seasonal Affective Disorder." Psychiatry. Volume 5, Issue 5. Pages 31-33.


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