Is seasonal affective disorder a myth?

February 1, 2016, 4:09 p.m.
Winter hikers in Alaska
Photo: Joseph/Flickr

With colder temperatures and shorter daylight hours, winter can be one of the most challenging times of year to get outside. That's especially true for people who've been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, or SAD — or so the thinking goes. A new study suggests that there's little evidence that depression comes and goes with the seasons, and that the disorder might largely be a cultural myth.

"We analyzed the data from many angles and found that the prevalence of depression is very stable across different latitudes, seasons of the year, and sunlight exposures," said Steven LoBello, a professor of psychology at Auburn University and one of the study's authors.

Published in the Clinical Psychological Science journal, the study looked at 34,294 participants ranging in age from 18 to 99 to identify how many days they had experienced various symptoms of depression within the previous two weeks. Based on each participant's geographic location, researchers also recorded a host of seasonal measurements including the day of the year, the latitude and the amount of sunlight each location received.

As the Association for Psychological Science writes in its announcement of the study, "the results showed no evidence that symptoms of depression were associated with any of the season-related measures. That is, people who responded to the survey in the winter months, or at times of lower sunlight exposure, did not have noticeably higher levels of depressive symptoms than those who responded to the survey at other times."

Of course, people are certainly capable of experiencing depressive and melancholic episodes in the colder months of the year, but as researchers explain, "being depressed during winter is not evidence that one is depressed because of winter."

So what does this mean for people currently diagnosed with SAD?

"Mental health professionals who treat people with depression should be concerned about their own and their patients' accurate conceptions about the possible causes of depression," LoBello explains. "Pursuit of treatments based on false causes is unlikely to lead to rapid and durable recoveries."

While the amount of geographical sunlight exposure may not be clinically linked to seasonal depression, there might be another reason you're feeling the winter blues — an overall lack of physical activity and exposure to nature. The tendency to hunker down in the colder months, however cozy and comforting that may be, means people are less likely to exercise or spend quality time outdoors. So the next time you find yourself descending into a chilly melancholy, consider trying out these natural remedies for the winter blues.

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