Author: Natalie Andrewski
As the winter season blossoms into spring, it is almost impossible to notice a change of environment here in Seattle. Not only are flowers blooming and the sun is beginning to make more adamant appearances, but the people of this city seem to begin transitioning as well. During the winter months, the “Seattle Freeze”, as the often passive aggressive and not-so-welcoming demeanor of local Seattleites has been labeled by transplants, is very apparent. Groups of friends prefer to remain exclusive, and the activities they participate in may usually occur inside. However, once Spring has sprung, the frozen attitudes of Seattleites appears to defrost. Parks all over the city are filled with groups of people attempting the ever-tricky slack line, running with unexpected zeal, and hiking to new ascents. Rather than avoiding eye contact, members of the city are engaging in conversations with new people in attempt to try a new activity or finally say hello to a familiar face. I began to question why a singular season transition could have such a stark contrast in an entire city’s demeanor, and I believe my answer lies in the notion of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Growing up in Southern California, I was surrounded by sunshine basically 365 days a year. Most days were glorious enough to be spent outside, and my mom often referred to me as her “sunflower”. When I was in the 6th grade, my family migrated from California to the Pacific Northwest. Of course, the year we moved to Washington was recorded as having record rain fall in the Olympia area, and my days of playing outside were replaced with indoor entertainment. Even in my younger days, I knew my energy levels and happiness was positively correlated with my time spent in the sunshine. I began to struggle with depression, even though I didn’t quite understand that concept yet, and I would suffer from stress that would effect my quality of health poorly. After all these years, I have finally made the connection between the weather and my mood.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a “mood disorder subset in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year exhibit depressive symptoms at the same time each year, most commonly in the winter”. It is quite an extraordinary event that people can maintain a stable mental health pattern for the majority of the year, but then be so affected by light levels that an imbalance occurs in the brain. These imbalances can lead to depression, hopelessness, and suicide. The main chemical involved in the brain during this process is serotonin, which is recorded as being in lower than average levels in patients suffering from the disorder. It appears that the brain becomes incapable of converting serotonin into N-acetylserotonin, which involves the enzyme serotonin N-acetyltransferase. In certain cases, antidepressants function by increasing levels of the enzyme serotonin N-acetyltransferase in order to increase levels of conversion and a reduction of depression-like symptoms. It has been discovered that patients that suffer from this disorder often have a delay in their circadian rhythm, which is a delay in their sleep patterns. The relation to sleep patterns also promotes the idea that the hormone melatonin is affected by this disorder. There are a variety of other factors that can contribute to suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, including a person’s predisposition to personality traits, such as agreeableness and an avoidance-orientated coping style (Seasonal Affective Disorder).
In order to begin alleviating the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder, the interventions of light therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and supplementation of the hormone melatonin have been utilized, but I will focus on light therapy. In terms of light therapy, the use of a lightbox that emits an elevated level of lumens is necessary. The lights of the lamps can range in wavelength and lumen levels, usually depending on the light of the lamp: bright white “full spectrum” lights at 10,000 lux, blue light at a wavelength of 480 nm at 2,500 lux, or green-blue light at a wavelength of 500 nm at 350 lux. The process of light therapy usually lasts 30-60 minutes of being exposed to the light consistently.
Seasonal Affective Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml.