RACHEL GREEN, KNIGHT WIRE GUEST REPORTER
Wartburg College licensed mental health counselor Molly Wertz says there are many symptoms attributed to Seasonal Affective Disorder. Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) is a type of depression associated with the annual changing of seasons. S.A.D. is most common during winter months due to many factors, possibly including changes in exposure to light.
“It’s a disorder that mimics a depressive episode,” said Wertz. “Perhaps not always as intense as a depressive episode, but definitely a lower mood, lower energy, changes in sleep, changes in appetite and maybe needing a little extra motivation to get going during the day.”
It is not uncommon to experience some sort of seasonal depression, or “winter blues,” said Wertz, but S.A.D. is a more enhanced version of these feelings. S.A.D. can also occur during the spring or summer seasons but is less common.
“To be diagnosed with S.A.D.,” said Wertz, “you have to have the same set of symptoms for two years in a row.”
There are many possible causes of S.A.D. including changes to the body’s circadian rhythm, melatonin levels and serotonin levels. These are all impacted by exposure to sunlight. According to Mayo Clinic, S.A.D. is more common among people with a family history of S.A.D., have low levels of vitamin D and live far from the equator. With Wartburg College being 42.73˚ north of the equator, students are at higher risk for developing these symptoms.
Neuroscientist and Wartburg College assistant professor of biology Dr. Eric Emmons, says many typical behaviors in the winter can worsen symptoms of S.A.D.
“A lot of the things that happen in the winter,” said Emmons, “where you kind of hole up and sort of hibernate. Humans have never hibernated in a true sense, but we’re mammals. We kind of increase our amount of food intake during the winter because we need more energy and we’re sort of hunkering down because it is cold outside – all of those things can for some people exacerbate symptoms are seasonal affective disorder.”
There are many ways to treat S.A.D. These include but are not limited to light therapy, psychotherapy, Vitamin D supplements and medications. Currently there is no cure for S.A.D. and each treatment has its downfalls.
“It takes a long time to get onto antidepressant in a way that works, and it can be very difficult to get on or get off without all sorts of other really nasty symptoms,” said Emmons. “So for a lot of people it’s beneficial, especially if it’s going to be a seasonal thing, to have a bit of treatment approach.”
Lifestyle changes are one of the most common treatments for S.A.D.
“Really one of the best things you can do is maintain routine,” said Wertz.
Creating a routine includes six to eight hours of healthy sleep a night, eating and exercise habits. Due to many of the causes being related to light exposure, it is also recommended to increase exposure to light.
“Just try to maximize how much time you’re able to have access to that natural light,” said Emmons.
With natural light being less available during winter months, light therapy is another method to gain this exposure. Light therapy involves using a special lamp – which is about 20 times brighter than regular indoor lights – placed two to three feet away while you read, eat or do other activities.
“Our office has two blue lights,” said Wertz. “When used over time it can help with those serotonin levels in the brain because it mimics the sunlight. And so, we have those available for students to check out for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. It’s not recommended to sit there and have that in your face for longer than that.”
The blue lights are available for all students to check out from Wartburg Counseling Services during their regular business hours. That office can be found on the third floor of Vogel Library and is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
It is recommended to speak to a professional if you are experiencing intense symptoms of S.A.D.
“I think it’s just important to really stop and do a self-check and have an understanding of are these symptoms impacting my daily life?” said Wertz. “And if they are, then think who I can go to?”
Wertz is one of two full-time counselors at Wartburg Counseling Services, with one part-time counselor available on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Other resources include campus pastors and the Noah Campus Health Clinic.