The Winter Blues: SAD or sad?

The Winter Blues: SAD or sad?

You’ve probably heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. According to the Mayo Clinic, a major nonprofit medical research and practice institution in the U.S., SAD is a type of depression specific to the winter months. Basically, it’s the official diagnosis for winter blues. Its symptoms sound a lot like those of nonseasonal depression: feeling hopeless or worthless, lacking energy, losing interest in activities you enjoy, having trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating and so on. Medical lore has it that people living in places like New England are particularly vulnerable to SAD, since shorter days reduce the amount of sunlight we receive, causing drops in serotonin and melatonin, as well as disrupting our biological clocks. SAD has been a widely publicized phenomenon for about 30 years; at this point, it wouldn’t be hard to fall down a black hole of internet articles recommending ways to beat SAD.

Recently, however, a few studies have suggested that SAD isn’t a thing. One’s by the CDC, and another was published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science. The researchers conclude that symptoms of depression are pretty much the same in the summer as in the winter.

A couple of things seem worth saying about these new studies, especially if you’re pretty sure you do, in fact, experience winter-related depression. First, it’s important to see them in context: Like all scientific studies, they are contributions to a debate. It is possible, for example, that future studies will reveal that a pattern of depression does exist, but it’s not because of a lack of sunlight. For example, similar studies in Norway, which receives as little sunlight as New England in the winter, have not shown the existence of SAD. That might suggest that SAD is really about culture.

Second — and related on some level — whether we feel sad has little to do with whether SAD is real. That is, it doesn’t matter if some diagnosable disorder with a multisyllabic name and a fancy acronym (e.g. “Seasonal Affective Disorder”) exists. What matters is sometimes we feel sad. And that’s actually just fine — sadness is an important human emotion. Of course, sometimes we feel very sad for an extended period of time — like all winter, possibly, and that’s maybe not so fine.

There are, I think, a lot of reasonable explanations for winter-related sadness that have nothing to do with an official medical diagnosis. Maybe you detest running on a treadmill (you’re not a hamster), but you also don’t think it’s all that much fun to run outside when it’s six degrees (you’re not an Arctic fox), so when it gets cold, you exercise less and feel worse. Alternatively, maybe you and your friends are less likely to brave the cold to get together and hang out (you’re not a family of polar bears), and so you spend more time alone and feel lonely.

Or maybe none of these is why you feel sad. In which case, the hardest thing to do is also the most important thing to do: Take steps. Most obviously, you can learn about depression, and you can talk to somebody at UNH’s Counseling Center or meet with an educator/counselor at Health Services to get a better understanding of what’s bugging you. You might also try out light therapy. Health Services will offer free appointments for the UNH community during the spring semester in the new wellness space at Hamel Recreation Center. (Does light therapy actually work? Well, here’s what a fellow UNHer wrote about the experience a couple years ago.) You could also make an appointment to get a massage with a licensed massage therapist. (PSA: The prices are insanely good for students!) One final suggest: Search YouTube for videos of “babies eating lemon.” This, perhaps unlike SAD, most certainly is a thing.