SAD: Maintaining Mental Wellness When Winter Hits

With the onset of winter comes the undeniable allure of sipping on a steaming mug of hot chocolate or apple cider, re-watching nostalgic childhood Christmas movies, and stepping outside into a world buried under layers of crisp white snow. Even with the stress of final exams looming in the near future, we’re able to hold on to our sanity in anticipation of the home cooked meals to be had once winter break comes. There’s so much to appreciate about this year’s last few months, and even more to look forward to in the coming new year. 

There’s something to be said, however, when these “joys of winter” become overshadowed by a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach at the very thought of winter; Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD for short), sometimes known as Seasonal Depression or the “winter blues”, is actually pretty common. It’s not hard to see why, what with having to adjust quickly to the freezing temperatures, harsh snow and sleet, and dwindling hours of sunlight that accompany the change in seasons. Symptoms of winter-onset SAD usually present themselves around fall time and fully manifest in winter, and are commonly caused by decreased melatonin and serotonin levels that come with the loss of sunlight. The physical and mental toll can be draining and result in low energy and motivation levels and feelings of extreme stress and sadness. SAD isn’t something to be ignored, and once daily life is impeded it’s time to seek help. 

For some people, it’s the rush of exam seasons that affects them the most. For me, it’s having to come to terms with getting through winter after all of the Holiday festivities have wrapped up and second semester hits with a vengeance. Having nothing on a scale as large as Christmas to look forward to can leave the days, weeks and months of winter creeping by on what feels like a snail’s pace. It’s a difficult feeling to have to acknowledge the pressures of school while your mental health remains distant and sluggish. Although easier said than done, it’s important to check in and take care of yourself during this time. If you know you’re prone to falling into this slump at a certain period during the winter, it’s helpful to be proactive and take measures to combat SAD before it comes in full throttle. 

Thankfully, there are multiple ways to manage SAD. Light therapy, for example, is a popular option and provides relief for a lot of people. During the winter months, when nighttime seems to invade far earlier than we’re used to, it’s easy to feel deprived of natural light. Light boxes give off an artificial light that, different to regular lights in your house, mimic the health effects of natural light. I personally turn on my light box when studying or reading at my desk throughout the day; it’s comforting to know that such an easy step in my daily routine can bring so much good. 

Making changes in your lifestyle is another effective way to combat SAD. In an environment like university where a consistently high level of performance is expected, stress can be especially debilitating. Maintaining an exercise routine, meditating, eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, and doing whatever else helps you feel like a thriving human being while staying on top of the winter blues and stress of exams is necessary. 

When things become too overwhelming to manage by yourself, there are always resources that can provide help throughout difficult times. Student wellness services offer professional support, extensive information about maintaining mental health, and one on one and group counselling sessions found here