There have been some very hot days here back at Penn State. While I love warm weather, walking to class with a backpack full of books is a sweaty struggle. I constantly dream of when the sun will go down and the days will cool off. But when I say this, I’m talking about fall, not winter. I would rather deal with countless more summer days than see snow fall and thermometers drop to single digits. Not only is it because it drops my high spirits a little, but I notice it in the people around me, too. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” people will cheer, but no, not exactly for all of us. The question I’ve decided to research is, is there a reason why winter makes people sad?
Once I began my research, I found from a help guide about mental, emotional, and social health that winter sadness is a real disorder, and it’s actually called Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD). SAD appears usually during the winter months and is a type of depression that affects the daily routines, relationships, and feelings of individuals. Lawrence Robinson and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., authors of the help guide, stated that while SAD takes its toll on about 1 to 2% of the population, there’s a much less extensive version of SAD called winter blues – this form of mild depression during the season change affects around 10 to 20% of the population. Why does this happen, though? Well as summer ends, the long hot days become shorter and the sun doesn’t stay out as long, noticeably affecting people. This change apparently throws off many aspects in your body and brain. First, your Circadian rhythm is disrupted. As if college doesn’t already mess with your sleep cycle, this means that your inner clock is changed thanks to it still being dark when you wake up, leaving you more tired than usual. The lack of sunlight also causes an overproduction and underproduction of melatonin and serotonin. Melatonin is a hormone created at night when you are sleeping, but too much of it due to the longer nights can reduce your energy. On the other hand, less sunlight equals less serotonin, which affects mood and makes SAD a type of depression. I decided to see if I could get ahold of any studies investigating these causes.
The American Psychological Association discusses a study by Charmane Eastman, Ph.D., and her colleagues that supports the idea that the winter season and less sunlight have an impact on people’s moods. For four weeks, they conducted a random experiment with a placebo arm. Out of the 96 individuals, who were diagnosed with SAD, they received treatment from different intensities of bright-lights for various amounts of time (ranging from one and a half hours in the morning or evening, or technically no hours in the morning with the placebo or disabled lights). The results after three weeks showed that those who were treated with the lights, especially in the morning, had hardly any or completely no more symptoms of SAD compared to the placebo group.
So it appears that the mechanism for winter sadness can be from the reduced exposure to sunshine. Of course, chance is always a possibility in science, but Eastman’s experiment results support this hypothesis. The researchers controlled the light to prove that the depressive symptoms could be diminished. Assuming the study was done well, too, it is hard to say that third variables could have influenced the outcome since the putative causal variable was being manipulated. Outside the experiment, however, I’ve learned from both previously provided sources that women are more prone to SAD, as well as people more northern in latitude. Perhaps these factors could have persuaded the data, but hopefully not too much due to the random sample of patients. It is best to remember that the study cannot 100% prove the hypothesis, but it does provide evidence.
I can say there are several possible reasons as to why winter can make people sad, and it’s related to Seasonal Affective Disorder. If your symptoms of SAD are severe, it would be rational to try out some suggested treatments like the light therapy that was done in the study. For me, since my feelings of sadness are not too severe with the weather and daylight savings change, I can treat my winter blues with getting outside more even if it’s under the shady sun of the wintertime.