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Just Winter Wallowing – Or More? The Scoop on Seasonal Affective Disorder

Think back to some of your happiest memories: Maybe they include a trip to the beach with your best friends, spring break in Miami, or playing outside under the sun as a little kid. What’s noticeably absent from this list? Wading knee-deep through snow or getting caught in the pouring rain without an umbrella. Obviously, dealing with dreary weather isn’t fun – but for students who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.), the issue is more severe than you might think.
Her Campus talked to Dr. David M. Reiss, a clinical psychiatrist practicing for more than twenty-five years and the Interim Medical Director at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital in Holyoke, MA to learn about the disorder and discover how you can stay as positive as possible even as the temperatures drop.

Is seasonal affective disorder real?

Seasonal affective disorder is more than just feeling like you’d rather stay inside than head out when it’s raining!
According to Reiss, the symptoms of S.A.D. can extend to any of the symptoms stemming from depression or anxiety: sadness, moodiness, lack of energy, insomnia or hypersomnia, change in appetite, social withdrawal, loss of libido, and in severe cases, even suicidal ideation. Reiss explains, “In my personal clinical practice, I have seen many people who have more mood fluctuations in the winter, but I cannot say I recall a single patient who had no affective symptoms at other times.” In other words, S.A.D. isn’t just a burden you might carry through the winter; rather, you have tendencies towards the disorder year-round that are amplified by gloomy weather.
Reiss explains that while genetics and biochemistry are usually at play in someone with S.A.D., the disorder is worsened by psychological and situational factors. For example, warm weather means more opportunities for exposure to sunlight, exercise, vacation, relaxation, and recreation – all of which make us feel better. In the winter, all of those positive forces pretty much tend to disappear, unless you live in a perennially warm climate or are lucky enough fly south for a few days during winter break.
Like seasonal affective disorder, depression can’t necessarily be pinned to one specific cause across all cases. Doctors are split over whether seasonal affective disorder is a “stand-alone” disorder or an offshoot of depression. Although the majority currently believes it is a separate issue, Reiss stresses the importance of treatment, calling the debate “more an issue of semantics than substance

Do students bear the brunt of S.A.D.?

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, approximately four to six percent of Americans have diagnosable cases of the disorder, and an additional 10 to 20 percent may experience more mild cases. Furthermore, S.A.D. is more common in women than in men (depression as a whole is more common in women than men due to differences in hormones and social patterns), and most cases begin to appear in your early twenties – in other words, the disorder directly affects millions of college women every year.
Kathleen, a student at James Madison University, deals with S.A.D. caused by the Virginia weather. “I recently moved from San Diego to Harrisonburg, Virginia, where it rains almost all the time,” she says. Although she’s never talked to a doctor about the disorder, she’s compared her symptoms with those of her friends who have been diagnosed and says she wouldn’t be surprised if S.A.D. was getting her down. “I am willing to bet that [my depression] has to do with the consecutive rainy days.”
Madeline, a student at Mount Holyoke College, also has dealt with self-diagnosed winter blues. “From November to April, it’s just awful [in Massachusetts]. It’s gray, cold, and often sleeting or snowing. I get to the point where I don’t want to leave my room, let alone my bed, because it’s so miserable outside. I experience S.A.D. to some degree every year, and I’ve found that by February, I have a really hard time motivating myself, staying positive, or even getting out of bed in the morning.”

How can you get help?

If you’re facing a mild case of S.A.D. – or even just your standard winter blues – the good news is that it’s easy to keep in check. Reiss encourages plenty of exercise, a healthy diet, and a special effort to ensure you’re just as social as you would be during any other season. You can also consult your doctor or a registered dietitian regarding supplements of vitamin D, which mimics the health benefits of sunshine, and omega-3, which helps combat depression.
If your S.A.D. is still keeping you, well, sad, you might benefit from light therapy. Sometimes referred to as “light boxes” or “blue lights,” this method is a common way of dealing with the disorder. This type of therapy is administered at home, by sitting near a box that emits light designed to mimic sunlight (minus the sun’s harmful UV rays). Exposure to artificial sunlight boosts your mood, which works towards lessening the effects of S.A.D. after only about thirty minutes of use. You can buy them online at specialty stores or on Amazon, or in person at Target and Costco.
Some schools in dreary climates offer light therapy as a resource to students struggling with S.A.D. Cara, a Cornell grad, says her school sold light boxes to students on campus. Chloe, a student at University of Michigan who has been diagnosed with S.A.D., adds that University of Michigan has free light therapy available for student use whenever they’d like, in addition to programs regarding how to deal with the disorder.
There’s a popular misconception that tanning can help negate the effects of S.A.D., but that’s not necessarily true. “I know a lot of people who like to go tanning to warm themselves up and put themselves in a sunnier mindset, but that’s not the healthiest resource,” surmises Kayla from the University of Maine. Reiss does not endorse tanning as a course of treatment. Most tanning beds emit UVA and UVB rays (the harmful types of light), while most light boxes emit a full spectrum of light except for UVA and UVB rays. Even if the psychological effects of tanning might cheer you up, there’s literally zero physiological reason for it to improve your mood. If you can’t kick your tanning habit, please remember that the only safe way to bake is to fake it – you don’t want to increase your risk for skin cancer.

If symptoms continue in spite of exercising often, eating well, staying social and light therapy, Reiss suggests turning to professional help and seeking therapy, which you can get access to through your school’s health center.

Originally from Boston, Hannah is now a sophomore at New York University and loves life in the big city. Her favorite things include poking fun at celebrities on Twitter, yoga, leopard print shoes, Frank Sinatra, and her little sister Julia. Hannah was Her Campus's first editorial intern in Summer 2010 and has since continued her involvement with HC as the High School Editor and head of the High School Ambassador program. She is a former Seventeen and Huffington Post intern, where she researched and wrote about celebrities and once made lunch for Kylie Jenner. Read her short-form ramblings at @hannahorens.