When It's More Than "Winter Blues" - Seasonal Affective Disorder Awareness

In Minnesota, it’s rare to find someone that doesn’t feel a little bummed out by winter weather.  The lack of sunlight and short days can be disorienting and downright frustrating. This month’s onslaught of Arctic cold and constant snow hasn’t helped matters, either. By the end of February, it’s normal to feel sick and tired of it all, but Minnesotans see extreme winter conditions as a benign fact of life. We’re supposed to suck it up, start the snowblowers, and muscle through.

 

But what happens when you can’t? What does it mean when the dark mornings keep you from getting out of bed on time? Did you start off the fall semester with high prospects that waned as the temperature dropped below freezing? Do you feel isolated by the cold and the snow, or find yourself defeated, wondering if winter will ever end?

 

If your mental wellbeing deteriorates in the winter months, it’s possible that you’re experiencing something more than typical changes in mood. A condition known as seasonal affective disorder (aptly abbreviated as SAD) bothers millions of adults in the U.S. each year. 14 percent of us report experiencing a mild form of SAD, while another 6 percent deal with a more severe form of the condition. As you might expect, SAD is more prevalent in northern regions of the country; about 2 percent of Florida’s population is diagnosed with SAD, whereas Minnesota sits at around 11 percent. And that number only counts those formally diagnosed; the actual amount of people living with SAD in Minnesota could be higher.

 

So - what is SAD? How does it differ from simply feeling a bit down? And, most importantly, how can it be treated?

 

SAD is a subtype of depression that recurs each year, based on the season, and it is four times more prevalent in women. Sufferers of SAD will typically experience some or all symptoms of traditional major depression, including:

 

  • Loss of interest in activities you usually like

  • Low amount of energy or fatigue

  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness

  • Agitation/irritation

  • Sleeping too much, not sleeping enough, or sleeping at odd times

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Big changes in appetite - in SAD, usually manifests as overeating or craving carbohydrates

  • Weight loss or weight gain

  • Unusually low or high libido

  • Feeling isolated or withdrawn (“hibernating”)

  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide

 

If you recognize these symptoms or a pattern of symptoms in yourself, it’s important to talk to your doctor about it. You might not be depressed or have SAD, but it’s still worth mentioning.

 

 

It can be tempting to downplay or ignore symptoms of SAD, especially as a busy college student.  After all, everyone has to deal with winter. You may wonder if you’re overreacting, or being lazy - and that type of thinking is unfortunately common.  But SAD is very real, and when the symptoms are severe enough it can be wreak havoc on your professional, academic, and personal life.

 

There are multiple theories about the cause of SAD. The most prominent theory revolves around the lack of sunlight. The sun helps us regulate our bodies in many ways; our sleep cycles depend on its rise and fall, and humans need sunlight to produce vitamin D. When our sleep cycles are disrupted by a lack of sunlight, our bodies may have trouble adjusting - hence, the issues with waking up in the morning. Vitamin D deficiency is well-known for contributing to higher levels of fatigue. The Mayo Clinic also tells us that “reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.” The hormone serotonin is not only known for mood regulation, but for helping control appetite, digestion, sleep, and libido. When it comes down to it, sunlight does a LOT for our bodies  - and some of us feel its absence more acutely than others!

 

If you’re someone who dreads what winter brings, it’s important to know that there are options out there for you - options easier and cheaper than packing up and moving somewhere with year-round sun. Perhaps you’ve discovered coping strategies for yourself over time, but here are some treatment ideas that may help.

 

1. Light therapy. Maybe you’ve seen a friend or relative use one of those bright light boxes. They’re also called happy lamps or SAD lamps, and their popularity in the United States has grown in recent years. These lamps are designed to deliver bright light that mimics the intensity of the sun. Light therapy has been researched and proven to help many people alleviate symptoms of SAD. It’s most effective when used in the early morning just after a person wakes up, for at least 15 minutes. It’s thought to help by regulating circadian rhythms (sleep) and boosting serotonin production, leading to higher energy levels and an improved, stable mood. On a personal note, I began using a happy lamp this winter, and I find that when I use it I feel more energized and alert. It becomes easier to concentrate and stay awake for the entire day. Quality lamps can be found on Amazon for $40-$60. If you do decide to try one out, remember to buy one that’s bright enough to mimic the sun’s rays - at least 10,000 lux. (Don’t look directly at it!)

 

 

2. Traditional talk therapy. Talking to a therapist is baseline treatment for any form of depression, and SAD is no different. Therapists will listen to you without judgement, and help you to form your own goals and healthy coping strategies for dealing with SAD symptoms while they last. Therapy often has a negative stigma attached to it, but don’t be worried! Therapists not only work to make you feel as comfortable as possible, but they can help you learn new things about yourself. Even people without mental health troubles see therapists to help them work through their problems. If you want to give it a try, you could make an appointment with the St. Kate’s Counseling Center. If the idea of one-on-one-therapy doesn’t appeal to you, consider group therapy too! There are plenty of therapy groups throughout the Twin Cities.

 

3. Talk to your doctor about medication. If your SAD symptoms are severe and negatively impacting your daily life, taking antidepressants may be a good idea. There’s a lot of negative stigma surrounding these drugs, but your doctor should be able to help you find one that works for you, or can refer you to a doctor who can. It may be the case that you take anti-depressants on a seasonal basis, tapering off as spring arrives and beginning again in the fall/winter. Remember that taking antidepressants does not mean you’re giving up. It doesn’t make you “crazy”.  If you need them, there’s absolutely zero shame in taking them. In fact, you should be proud of yourself - you’re using them to take care of yourself, just like how everyone needs to shower and brush their teeth. For those with severe symptoms of SAD, medication is a valid and safe option.

 

Seasonal affective disorder descends on millions of people each winter, and if you’re one of them it may be tempting to brush the problem aside in the hopes that it will go away. When being a college student keeps you so busy, finding time to consider the needs of your body and mind can be difficult. Winter will end (I promise) and your symptoms will abate. But for a moment, think of all the time and effort you expend on yourself as a college student. Every minute you spend on school, work, internships and clubs is an investment in you and your future. Taking care of your mental health works the same way.  Acknowledging your issues now will only better equip you for years to come, and give you more time to understand your own mind.

 

Seasonal affective disorder is not your fault. The obstacles you face are real, and there’s more support and understanding out there than you may realize. And when the snow finally melts, the lessons you take away from taking care of your mental health will remain with you.

 

(If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, there are resources available to you.)

 

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: Call 1-800-273-8255 or chat online.

 

List of suicide/crisis prevention hotlines throughout Minnesota