The Winter Blues: Recognizing and Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder

by Julia Kelb | Feb 26, 2021

 

Your student is back on campus for second semester. It’s winter—the weather is cold and often gray. The stress of the semester is starting. It’s also the start of SAD for some. What is SAD? Sometimes referred to as the winter blues, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that is related to the change in seasons, specifically the cold winter months and lack of sun. Days get shorter, nights get longer, and these changes can have negative impacts on both physiological and mental health. SAD is a distinct syndrome that impacts one in 20 adults in the U.S., with women being three times more likely to be affected than men. SAD has three main causes: a genetic component, a lack of sunlight component, and stress. College students can be particularly vulnerable to SAD due to the natural stressors associated with college life combined with their lifestyle of staying up late and getting up late that reduces their needed exposure to natural light. During this year of social distancing and increased health concerns, it is even more important than ever to tune in to your student's mental health and recognize how to help them if they appear to be struggling. 

Below are some points to consider and simple ways to assist your student in feeling better if they are experiencing SAD:

  1. Recognize symptoms and their seasonal pattern. Symptoms can include: low energy, not wanting to get out of bed, feeling sad on a daily basis, increased irritability, trouble concentrating, insomnia, loss of interest in daily activities. Do symptoms improve slightly on sunnier days?
  2. Get as much natural sunlight as possible. Light and not getting enough of it is at the heart of this condition. Some people just need more light.  Encourage your student to go outside, even when they don’t feel like it. Even a little light on a cloudy day is more effective than artificial light.
  3. Maintain a regular bedtime and sleep schedule. Lack of sleep is known to make SAD symptoms worsen. Encourage your student to avoid taking daytime naps or using electronics for 30 minutes before going to sleep. Share with your student the helpfulness of going to bed and getting up at the same time each day.
  4. Be thoughtful and consistent with what and when you eat. People with true seasonal affective disorder crave carbohydrates—sweets and starches. Food provides important cues to our body. When we are eating, our body thinks we should be awake. Encourage your student to eat a balanced diet and to eat at consistent times each day.
  5. Get exercise. Regular exercise is a powerful way to fight seasonal affective disorder. Encourage your student to get consistent exercise, as exercise will compete with the tendency to be sluggish and can boost production of serotonin, endorphins, and other ‘feel good” brain chemicals.
  6. Manage stress. In order to manage stress, creating a self-care list and utilizing it daily can be helpful. Students may want to try mindfulness or meditation as these practices are effective in coping with stress. Encourage your student to be proactive about planning something each day to look forward to—this can be as simple as drinking a warm cup of coffee or watching a favorite show. Additionally, students may want to see a therapist to talk through how they are feeling. Seeking help is a sign of strength and can be necessary at times if their stress has become overwhelming or unmanageable.
For more information or if your student would find it beneficial to schedule a consultation, please contact the Counseling and Consultation Services office at Marian University: CCS@marian.edu or (317) 955-6150.

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