The winter blues is a clichéd term that has been used for as long as I can remember for those occasions where the cold, miserable weather leaves someone in a pretty miserable mood. However, a more scientific term for the condition is called Seasonal Affective Disorder, and it is far more serious than the cliché suggests.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is defined by Mental Health Ireland as “a form of depression that is estimated to affect approximately one in 15 people between September and April”. It is a disorder which, according to the same organisation, affects those who suffer from it more severely between the months of December, January, and February.
SAD is not simply a case of finding yourself in a foul mood during winter months due to crappy weather. It is a significant alteration in mood and mind-set in autumn and winter, compared to spring and summer.
As for specifics, according to the Health Service Executive (HSE), symptoms of the depression may include:
* Being in an irritable mood.
* Feelings of despair.
* Feelings of guilt and worthlessness.
* Having low self-esteem.
* Being indecisive.
* Feeling stressed or anxious.
* A reduced sex drive.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a condition which doesn’t receive as much mainstream attention as other mental disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc. However, that does not mean we as a society can underestimate its significance.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is most prevalent in young people in their twenties, and is described by the HSE as a unipolar form of depression. What this means is that the sufferer experiences severe depressive symptoms, as well as a loss of interest in activities which the individual would normally have an interest in.
Usually, symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder begins to manifest in the autumn months and become most severe in winter months. More specifically, SAD sufferers experience severe depressive symptoms during the months of December, January, and February.
Mood begins to pick up further into the spring, before happiness reaches its apex in the summer. It is this upswing in mood which spawns an idea that SAD is instead a mere consequence of not wanting to be in the cold weather. However, there is more of a scientific explanation than that.
The theory goes, according to the HSE, that sunlight stimulates a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which controls such things as mood, appetite and sleep.
When stimulated, the hypothalamus sends a message to the pineal gland, which would then produce less melatonin, a hormone which affects the way we sleep. However, people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder naturally produce more melatonin than usual during the winter, which leads to an increased feeling of sleepiness.
Another contributing factor is a hormone called serotonin, which affects mood, appetite, and sleep. Sufferers of SAD usually have a lower-than-average level of serotonin in the body during the winter months. As a result of this, messages are not transmitted quickly between neurotransmitters in the brain, which then leads to symptoms such as depression.
Of course, there are other causes of this disorder which are far less complicated, including but not limited to social, psychological, personality and genetic factors. In a time where efforts are being made to remove stigma with regard to people who suffer from mental health issues, it is important to understand SAD, a disease which, up until researching it, this writer had very little knowledge in.
If you feel that you may suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder or any other mental illness for that matter, make sure to contact your local GP or specialist, or you can contact the likes of Samaritans free at 01-116-123.