We all know that feeling of slight depression when days begin to shorten and evenings start to lengthen. For some, however it is more severe and a recognised mental health disorder. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short is also known as ‘Winter Depression’. The symptoms can include having little or no energy, a loss of appetite and sleeping too much, with those who suffer badly from SAD having their winters punctuated with periods of severe depression, too.
Not a nice scenario at all and it is (as you might expect) more common in parts of the world where the sun doesn’t often put his hat on in the winter months. In the USA, for example, 1.4% residents in Florida suffer from SAD, with a much higher 9.9% in Alaska listed as suffers. In Ireland SAD rates have been registered as affecting as much as 20% of the population. This is serious stuff.
Given its formal name in 1984 by researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland, USA, one of the main triggers is a lack of sunlight and a drop in the air temperature. The development of treatments has been on the rise over the last decade, and are as varied and unique as their inventors.
In the Nordic countries, where in the winter there can be as few as just four hours of sunlight a day, there is a spike in the number of sufferers. The Norwegian town of Rjukan, which is nestled in a valley between two mountains; went to extreme lengths to ease the towns SAD. During the six months of winter the sun would disappear behind the peaks from as early as midday. In the past the town constructed a cable car to take them to the top of the mountains where they could feel the warmth of the sun on their faces. However, this wasn’t enough and in an incredible feat of engineering they constructed three mirrors (17sq m each) to reflect the sun from 450m above into the town. Genius!
According to a 2008 study by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United States its not just our exposure to sunlight that can affect us. Our diet can also help us cope with this condition. It was found that in Iceland SAD was much less apparent than in other Nordic countries. This was attributed to the large amount of fish traditionally eaten by the locals (about 90 kilograms per person per year), so maybe the key to happiness in the winter is to take a trip down to the local chippy for some freshly battered cod! Any excuse for some piping hot chips…
SAD was actually first discovered in 1984 by doctor and SAD sufferer Norman E. Rosenthal. He cleverly pioneered the use of sunlight therapy to combat the effects of the disorder. Something, many modern clinics around the world still provide today. He worked out that the very best way to combat SAD, or even to just give yourself a boost in the colder, darker, winter months, is to seek out friendship and sunlight.
To explore four ways to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder whilst catching up with friends , why not check out our article ‘Winter Sun Socialising.’