Graphic by Naomi Idehen
I’ve always heard that the sensation of panic is reminiscent of the first hill on a roller coaster, when the cars pause right before the drop and your heart drops into your stomach. In those moments of anxiety, the nervous system engages in a sympathetic “fight, flight or freeze” response. However, there are other mood disorders that manifest a different feeling: unease. They include feelings of numbness to the world, and you experience hopelessness so deep that you feel like you’re less than functioning for long periods of time that can extend up to 40% of the year. These feelings have come to be diagnosed as symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
Also known as seasonal depression, SAD impacts 5% of adults in the United States. SAD is commonly found alongside bipolar and other depressive disorders, each exacerbating the other’s severity. Symptoms of SAD include loss of pleasure or interest in activities that used to be enjoyed, changes in appetite, loss of energy, difficulty thinking or making decisions and engaging in purposeless physical activity such as pacing or slowed movements and speech.
A recent study found that social connectedness can mitigate the severity of many cases of depression, and staying isolated can worsen symptoms of SAD. However, those with seasonal depression or other depressive disorders may find the act of leaving a safe space in order to socialize to be exhausting and even impossible at some points.
“It’s hard for people on the outside to truly understand the toll it takes,” Jared Gabrielli, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Stony Brook University, said. “They see [seasonal depression] as less debilitating than it actually is, and expect those experiencing seasonal depression to just push through, but that’s not how it works all the time.”
Another recent study hypothesized the onset of seasonal depression to be correlated to changes in daylight and circadian rhythm, which is the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle within a given 24 hour period. The most common cycle of SAD onsets during the fall with remission occurring in early spring. During these colder and darker months, people typically become more sedentary and less motivated to go to social events.
Thankfully, telecommunicative mental health care has emerged as a useful resource, especially within the last few years. According to a 2009 study by David Mohr, telehealth services not only can expand access to healthcare, but can also offer broader opportunities for providers to develop innovative and novel treatment procedures. Telecommunication for the purpose of social connection has also been a crucial and positive discovery in the last few years, making socializing and community involvement more accessible and approachable.
“Social media offers an ideal of social communication, and it’s probably better than nothing,” Gabrielli said. “However, there is probably no perfect replacement for the quality of in-person connectedness and communication.”
At many universities, for example, there are plenty of clubs and other mental resources for those who struggle with mental illness, which offer both virtual and in-person opportunities for participation. At Stony Brook University, the Center for Prevention and Outreach (CPO) has training programs, work-study opportunities and other resources for mental health and overall well-being. Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) also hosts brief counseling, medication management and crisis interventions. Both organizations have both student and professional employees to reach out to in any case of emergency or concern.
Combinations of psychotherapy, medication and light therapy are among best treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder. Light therapy is, however, uniquely designed to combat symptoms of SAD. It involves sitting next to a bright light when natural sunlight is not available in order to let the skin and eyes indirectly absorb light for a set amount of time. This is meant to trigger and catalyze the production of serotonin, essential for regulating sleep patterns and mood among other functions. This type of therapy, which is also used to mitigate the effects of jet lag, aims to reset circadian rhythm and regulate sleep cycles.
While there are many studies surrounding the etiology of other depressive and broader mood disorders, there is a substantial lack of research material with a sole focus on seasonal depression. However, what scientists do know is that community and empathy are paramount to patient successes.