Why People Raised In Warmer Climates Are More Susceptible To Seasonal Affective Disorder, And Why It Can Be As Debilitating As Clinical Depression

March 15, 2019  |  

Close up of woman walking on street

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You’ve probably never met anyone whose demeanor perked up during the winter. During such a time, people prefer to be indoors, forgoing plans with friends, errands and commitments because they don’t want to deal with the cold, the freezing rain and the commute-crushing snow. While speaking to my mother recently, she told me that she had slacked off on one of her favorite activities, which is walking in the park. She said she had’t done so because she’s been feeling down as of late. She lives in Chicago, and as everyone knows, temperatures can dip to a bone-chilling level during this time of year, and snow can come every other day during some months.

“I like to try and run around in the sun, but there hasn’t been enough lately,” she told me. “To be honest, it just makes you feel down. I can’t wait for spring.”

My mother could very well be one of the estimated 10 million Americans who are impacted by Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s a form of depression, and those who have it have symptoms that are often attributed to clinical depression. Individuals feel sad, have trouble concentrating on tasks and getting to sleep. They also have a lowered level of energy, lose interest in beloved activities, and maybe even change their appetite by either eating a lot less or a lot more. At worst, people suffering with SAD can feel hopeless and have thoughts of suicide. This disorder is triggered around fall when the temperature begins to dip and the sun goes down earlier, and can go until springtime when it’s warmer and there is more sunlight.

“While the specific trigger has not been definitively identified, it is suspected that the decrease in sunlight disrupts the normal working of your body’s internal clock. This could affect the working of the sleep hormone, melatonin,” said Eudene Harry M.D., holistic wellness doctor and author of Be Iconic. “A decrease in serotonin levels, the chemical that helps regulate our moods, has also been linked in SAD. Some research shows that sunlight plays a role in the production of serotonin levels. Low vitamin D has also been linked in SAD.”

Those with a family history of SAD, and women, unfortunately, are more at risk of developing the “winter blues.” According to Harry, those who migrate from warm climates to colder ones tend to also be more more susceptible to developing the condition. My mother, for example, was born, raised and spent most of your young adult life in Texas, so she likely never fully adjusted to the cold that the Midwest is known for.

“Also, the further away you are from the equator the higher your risk of suffering from the winter blues,” Harry said. “This may be because the further away you are from the equator, the less your sunlight exposure.”

And while it’s a very unrealistic suggestion to move closer to the equator, there are some simple lifestyle changes that can be made to improve your emotional state. That includes exposing yourself to as much sunlight as you can, when you can. When it’s your lunch break at work, step outside and get some sun. And when you can’t get out, it’s recommended that you try and get close to a window or at least make sure the room you’re in has natural light or lighting close to it. Whatever you do, don’t sequester yourself to dark spaces.

More and more people are saying that they are coping with the winter blues these days, and while some might assume that takes away from the gravity of this disorder, Harry said it’s definitely not something to take lightly, especially if you think you’re suffering with it.

“Seasonal affective disorder in some cases can be just as debilitating as major depressive disorder,” she said. “It is actually classified as a form of depression and without treatment, some people’s symptoms can become more severe. Sometimes, medication and/or psychotherapy are needed to treat SAD. It is important not to ignore your symptoms as early intervention can be the key to prevent your condition from worsening.”

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