Everyone feels a little glum during those dark, cold winter months––but could that sadness you’ve been feeling actually be something more serious? When winter rolls around each year, something else rolls around too: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a clinical form of depression that can result in fatigue, overeating, loss of interest in daily activities and difficulty concentrating.
Do you want to know more about SAD and what to do if you think it’s affecting you? We’ve recruited the help of Hilary Katz, SSW, LCSW, a clinical social worker at Equilibria Psychological and Consultation Services, to find out the truth about the disorder. Read below to see what we discovered:
What is seasonal affective disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that is linked to changes in the seasons. Most often, an individual with SAD will see symptoms start in the fall, according to the Mayo Clinic.
"SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year," Hilary says. "If you're like most people with SAD, your symptoms continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Less often, SAD causes depression in the spring or early summer."
Hilary says that many people will have an encounter with SAD at some point in their lives, but those with a predisposition for depression are the most susceptible. "In addition to having a predisposition, research has indicated that women are approximately 4 times more likely to experience SAD than men," Hilary says. "There has also been evidence that people who go to work in the early hours of the morning during winter months, and leave work when it is dark outside tend to be more inclined to experience SAD symptoms."
What are the causes of SAD?
There is a lot of speculation as to what exactly causes SAD. While the list can be quite lengthy, Hilary sums up the causes into three points:
The effects of lack of light on our retinas, which then send messages to our brains.
Lower levels of “feel good” chemicals released in our brains during winter months.
Higher levels of Melatonin (the sleep hormone) during winter months.
What are symptoms of SAD?
SAD is a form of depression that comes and goes during periods of seasonal change. It is normal to have days where you don’t feel your best––but if you feel unmotivated for an extended period of time after a new season begins (usually the winter, but occasionally in the summer), you should visit your doctor.
"Similar to depression, people who have SAD may experience some or all of these symptoms: low energy, loss of interest, anxiety, overeating (crave more carbohydrates), increase in alcohol and/or substance abuse, disinterest in sex and apathy," Hilary notes.
How serious is SAD?
SAD affects collegiettes differently, so it is important for an individual to stay on top of her symptoms. "Some people experience ‘winter blues' and others really get hit with more profound depressive symptoms," Hilary says. "It is important that, no matter where someone finds [his or her] self within that range, that they try and tackle [these symptoms]. More severe symptoms of SAD can lead someone into a major depressive episode that lasts beyond winter months."
Can SAD be linked to other mental illnesses?
While SAD is a milder form of depression that correlates with changes in the weather, it can be linked to other, much more serious disorders––especially if you have a predisposition or family history of mental illness. Hilary says, "Someone who has a predisposition to anxiety and/or depression may be more prone to SAD."
What is the relationship between SAD and college students?
Are collegiettes more likely to develop SAD than an older generation? Yes––and there are several reasons why!
"College students typically do not have schedules that allow for a regular sleep schedule, which can be a cause of depressive symptoms in its own right," Hilary says. "Lack of a healthy sleep schedule can exacerbate the sluggishness most feel during the winter months. There is also the reality that college students tend to have ongoing high volumes of work that creates additional stress."
In the winter, there is no option to walk in the sunlight and feel the warmth of the day––or even open a window in your dorm or apartment––to medicate even the most sluggish moment, Hilary points out. This definitely attributes to the development of SAD in the colder months more often than the warmer.
How can a collegiette prevent herself from developing SAD?
So, how can a collegiette prevent herself from developing SAD? "If a college student recognizes they are having a hard time functioning and they are unable to help themselves get out of the funk, they would probably benefit from therapy," Hilary says. "There is no doubt exercise, a good sleep routine, and reframing negative thoughts in order to see the positive, can help tremendously!"
If you find that you have been a victim of the symptoms of SAD for the past several years and are unable to manage these symptoms on your own, it may be time to consult with a medical professional. Bright Light Therapy is a common treatment for the disorder, but only your doctor can determine if you would benefit from it.
It is normal to occasionally feel down. However, SAD is a serious disorder that should not be brushed off as a simple “winter funk.” If you or someone you know is dealing with symptoms of SAD, tell a family member or seek help from a medical professional. As a busy collegiette, it is easy to neglect your health or brush a negative feeling under-the-rug––but SAD can lead to more serious mental health issues, so you should not delay in getting help!