Seasonal Affective Disorder: not just the “winter blues”

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With winter right around the corner, some students might be feeling a bit more blue than normal. Have you ever felt down in the dumps in the winter without really knowing why? Perhaps you have Seasonal Affective Disorder, a mental health diagnosis triggered by short days and less sunshine.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (appropriately shortened to SAD), is a form of depression with symptoms that normally start in the fall and become more pronounced during winter months. In some cases, symptoms may last into the spring and early summer, but most individuals with SAD will experience a decline in their symptoms (and a boost in mood) in March and April.

SAD has a biological basis: it is related to levels of the hormone melatonin, which is triggered by light levels. This is the same hormone involved in sleep, so it makes sense that people with SAD feel sluggish and want to curl up in bed during the winter. Melatonin is produced in normal levels each night as part of the body’s way to prepare for sleeping; individuals with SAD tend to have higher levels of melatonin in their bloodstream than others, leading to low energy levels and inactivity.

Some of the most common symptoms of SAD include irritability, social withdrawal, depressed mood, loss of energy, oversleeping (hibernation), cravings for high-calorie foods, and difficulty concentrating and processing information. Many of these sound like symptoms of being in university; however, they can pose a more serious problem if not dealt with.

If you find that you are becoming more moody as the days grow shorter, don’t be discouraged. There are many ways to combat your winter blues that only require slight changes in your lifestyle.

Despite the dreary diagnosis, SAD can be treated easily and effectively with light therapy. Exposure to a bright light with a frequency close to that of sunlight can be very effective in improving the mood of patients with SAD during the fall and winter months. Prolonged exposure reduces production and release of melatonin; therefore, it is recommended to sit under or near a bright light in the morning, because light therapy later in the day can make it hard to fall asleep. Patients who use light therapy report feeling less sluggish and moody, and later report having more energy after several sessions.

If you think you might be affected by decreasing levels of daylight in the fall, be proactive. Take advantage of sunny days and get outside as much as you can, even if it is bloody cold out. Physical activity will go a long way to combat decreased energy levels, and it releases endorphins associated with good moods. Go for a walk or snowshoe on a trail, go ice skating on a lake, or hit up Poley or Crabbe for an afternoon. You will get a serious boost in energy and mood!

If even thinking about winter gives you the “blahs,” try to change your thinking; find a winter activity that you get excited about, and stick to it! Lastly, if you think that you might have SAD, get in touch with one of the counsellors on campus. They are here to help and give you ideas on how to combat your winter blues.

With files from the Mayo Clinic