Health & Safety

Seasonal Affective Disorder

By Amanda Taylor

For some of us, winter is a “SAD” time of year.

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High School Parent | College Parent

Each year in late autumn when the clocks turn back, I feel a bit off for a few weeks. My sleep is poor, I’m more emotional, and I crave almond croissants and eggnog lattes. I chalk it up to shorter days, colder weather, and the impending busy holiday season.

For roughly 10 percent of the population, however, the winter blues will last longer than just a few weeks.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that usually manifests during the fall and winter months and abates in the spring and summer. SAD results from decreased exposure to natural light and is more common in the northern United States.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), lack of sunlight can affect our bodies’ circadian rhythm and alter the production of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone, leading to SAD in some people. Serotonin, a brain neurotransmitter affecting mood, also plays a part in SAD as serotonin levels may decrease with reduced exposure to sunlight. Genetics can factor in, too — a Psychology Today article reports that many individuals diagnosed with SAD have at least one close family member with a psychiatric condition.

SAD affects more women than men — three out of four SAD sufferers are female, according to Mental Health America — and the age of typical onset is between 18-30. Based on those statistics, there’s a low to moderate chance that your student or someone she knows is dealing with SAD (or S-SAD, Subsyndromal-Seasonal Affective Disorder, the milder version, which affects up to 20 percent of the population). Your student will have a greater chance of experiencing SAD if she attends school in the northern latitudes.

Symptoms of SAD can vary from mild to severe and may last up to five months. They include:

  • Poor sleep
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feelings of low self worth
  • Increased carbohydrate intake/weight gain
  • Decreased motivation and energy
  • Isolation and decreased social involvement
  • Irritability

Feeling lighter

Research indicates that one or a more of the following treatments are beneficial in successfully treating depressive symptoms in SAD.

Light therapy: This is one of the most common forms of treatment and involves sitting in front of a natural light (lamps or light boxes) for up to 30 minutes a day. According to the NIH, light therapy treatments help mitigate symptoms of SAD for up to 70 percent of people after only a few weeks of treatment. Lamps can be purchased online.

Talk therapy: Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), in particular, has been shown to be effective in reframing thoughts and behaviors toward a more positive outlook. High school and college campuses generally have counselors familiar with SAD and can offer support and resources.

Medication therapy: If light and talk therapy are ineffective, antidepressants may help. A family doctor or psychiatrist is able to determine the best medication for your student.

Talking to your student

If your student shows any of the above SAD symptoms, and the symptoms are not the result of trauma or psychosocial stressors, you may want to encourage her to talk with someone for support. Several months of feeling depressed can take a toll on a student’s academic success and personal relationships. You can also encourage your student to maximize her time in the daylight, eat a well-balanced diet, get outside for some fresh air, exercise, avoid large amounts of caffeine, avoid depressants like alcohol, and maintain a regular sleep schedule. All of these healthy lifestyle habits will help to mitigate symptoms associated with SAD.

Regular exercise boosts everyone’s sense of well-being. There are lots of ways for your student to get physically active on campus. Find out more here.

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