Seasonal affective disorder causes unwanted side effects

Marquette students facing long and cold Milwaukee winters normally feel antsy or tired. However, it is possible to experience season-specific environmental stressors and changes in light which can increase the risk for a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

According to the Mayo Clinic, SAD is a seasonal variance in mood that comes on around the same time each year and typically persists through fall/winter or spring/summer. Though several risk factors and treatments for SAD are known, healthcare professionals are still enhancing their understanding of the disorder itself. It is now considered to be a subtype of major depression or bipolar disorder.

“In the most current diagnostic manual, and this is the one that came out in the last year or so, the term ‘seasonal affective disorder’ doesn’t appear,” said Michael Wierzbicki, a psychology department faculty member who studies depression. “What they do is talk about major depression that has a seasonal pattern.”

This distinction is essential, Wierzbicki said, because there are many different risk factors that could contribute to SAD’s onset, ranging from weather changes to seasonal job loss. Such complexities are what differentiate the disorder from the average “cabin fever” that most people may experience.

“It is common to feel more fatigued when it’s darker outside,” said Dr. Stephanie Kohler-Neuwirth, the counseling center’s consulting psychiatrist. “The dark is a signal to our body that it’s time to rest. But that isn’t the same thing as seasonal affective disorder, where you really are experiencing a major depressive episode. People do have to feel really down, sad or like they’re not enjoying things most of the time for at least two weeks.”

Dr. Kohler-Neuwirth added other symptoms that include changes in sleep, excessive fatigue, an increased appetite, feeling guilty or worthless, hopelessness, and thoughts of suicide. The counseling center has a range of treatments including light box therapy and psychotherapy. A person with SAD could also take antidepressants.

Mayo Clinic states the risk of SAD increases in people who live further from the equator, possibly due to the changes in the amount of sunlight a person receives. Because of these findings, light box therapy has become a commonly accepted treatment. The Marquette counseling center has a light box students can use for therapy. A person who has SAD symptoms or even mild weather-related mood changes can sit in front of the light box for a period of time and the box will simulate sunlight.

“When (light box therapy) was first introduced in about the 1980s, there were actually placebo studies that showed that this therapy (works),”  Wierzbicki said.

Wierzbicki said a misconception is that people may think the depressive symptoms are lowered due to the ability of the patient to finally relax, but Wierzbicki said researchers conducted a study that showed different spectrums of light had a therapeutic effect.

“I have a lot of friends that are from the California area, especially from southern California, and it’s interesting how we all feel a lot more sluggish and lazy and less motivated in the winter,” said Elyssa Camerino, a junior in the College of Health Sciences. “I’ve found that it does give me more energy, sometimes a little too much. But it definitely helps with my energy level and my motivation and maintaining the positive attitude that I strive for.”