Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

South Dakotans Talk About Seasonal Affective Disorder & What Works for Them

A foggy winter scene from Watertown, South Dakota
Brent Duerre
A foggy winter scene from Watertown, South Dakota

The good news is, there are things you can do today that may help you feel better.

If you feel like you have the winter blues, it may be true. Seasonal affective disorder, according to the Mayo Clinic Press “is a form of depression that primarily affects people during the fall and winter months when there is less daylight.”

Summertime is Melissa Wonnenberg’s favorite time of year.

“Our kids are very active in 4-H. We have a lot of farm animals, a lot of pets and we run about 100-head of cattle. Lots of outdoor work. I do a lot of gardening in the summer and my husband and I coach softball. We have two teams of softball that we coach. We’re pretty much outside from sunup to sundown during the summertime,” Wonnenberg said.

And even though the Dallas cattle producer is always on the go, Wonnenberg says during those sun-filled months, she has plenty of energy.

But things begin to change after the South Dakota State Fair in early September.

“I usually get a little bit of depression and I get anxiety from that, just because I know that it is coming. But it usually is the worst about February – right about now is when it hits,” Wonnenberg said.

Wonnenberg said she figured out she had seasonal affective disorder about five years ago.

“I realized that it was more in the winter when I couldn’t get outside to go work outside, work with the animals, do things like that. I noticed I just didn’t want to do things, didn’t have the energy, couldn’t get my to-do list on the roll,” Wonnenberg said.

There is a scientific explanation as to why some people react to sunless winter days with seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. And it is partially to do with serotonin.

“The retina in our eye, increases our serotonin. Serotonin is like our mood controller, or the volume of our mood. So let me give you an example, you come home from a hard day at work, and there’s dishes, nothing has been done. And either, fill in the blank, children, husband, significant other are playing games on their phone. Your response: “What in the world is going on here. I can’t believe it! I have to take care of everybody.” Would mean your serotonin is not working so good. A different response, “Hey guys, let’s get up, let’s get stuff done, let’s work together, let’s work together,” said Karla Salem.

Karla Salem is a clinical social worker with Sanford Health. She discussed the science of SAD during a recent conversation with SDPB’s In The Moment’s host, Lori Walsh.

“As the days start getting shorter, people start getting impacted by the shortness and the effect on your brain chemistry. Some people are impacted greatly, and those people would already probably have a diagnosis of depression. So, their chemical history would be a little bit different anyway. So, they get really impacted. Some people are situationally impacted because of the time of year and what is going on,” Salem said.

Today, Melissa Wonnenberg says she has figured out ways to proactively manage seasonal affective disorder.

“Well, in smalltown America, we make sure that we go to ball games because that’s where people are in the evening, so especially this year, where the weather has been exceptionally cold and we’ve been stuck in our house for weeks at a time, we’ve been making a special effort to just getting out and going to those ball games,” Wonnenberg said.

Wonnenberg says even though they could stream the game online, during the long dark days of winter, making time for the 20 minute drive from their farm to town is well worth the effort.

“It’s really super important for everyone’s mental health, as we found out during COVID,” Wonnenberg said.

In addition to more face-to-face interaction, Wonnenberg also found she feels better if she tans.

“Well it’s, probably not the dermatologist recommendation, but I do some tanning during the winter,” Wonnenberg said.

Although she does not mention tanning beds, Sanford Health clinical social worker Karla Salem does recommend light therapy.

“Light therapy is such an easy thing to do. You can get lights at certain places online, and they replicate sunlight, you try to get the right kind of light. Lux is the wattage, Verilux lights are the brand most commonly used. Lux is the wattage. Ten-thousand Luxes. If you have retina exposure, just put it next to your computer on the side, for 20 minutes a day, you’ll restore what you are losing over the wintertime. I’m a huge proponent of it because I have used it for 15 years,” Salem said.

Jerauld County business owner Michelle Tong is also a believer in light therapy.

“I have a sunlamp on my desk. I own Jerauld County Title Company in Wessington Springs, so I spend a lot of time at my desk reading, and just doing a lot of computer work, so that helps a lot,” Tong said.

Tong says it was seven years ago when she figured out it was seasonal affective disorder that was causing her to not feel like her best self.

“I just remember there were some days in March when it finally was starting to warm up and I didn’t want to go outside, and that was so unlike me, because I love being outside, so, I thought, you know, there’s got to be something that I can do myself to not feel like this. It’s been a very long process, and I’m not saying I have it down to an art, but it works for me and it helps me,” Tong said.

In addition to light therapy, during the winter and early spring Tong is intentional about getting exercise, eating healthy, taking vitamin D supplements and getting enough sleep. These are all lifestyle choices that can help with seasonal effective disorder explained Sanford Health clinical social worker Karla Salem.

And if you try to self-treat seasonal affective disorder on your own and you still feel its impact, know you don’t have to go it alone. Salem recommends visiting with your primary care doctor about other options.

To hear more advice from Sanford Health clinical social worker Karla Salem, click HERE to listen to her interview heard earlier on this program.

Lura Roti grew up on a ranch in western South Dakota but today she calls Sioux Falls home. She has worked as a freelance journalist for more than two decades. Lura loves working with the SDPB team to share the stories of South Dakota’s citizens and communities. And she loves sharing her knowledge with the next generation. Lura teaches a writing course for the University of Sioux Falls.
Lori Walsh is the host and senior producer of In the Moment.
Related Content