Massachusetts has experienced another long, cold winter this year, leading many to wonder if this seemingly eternal winter will ever end. Repeatedly fooled by faux warm spells, students are beginning to feel anxious while cooped up within the confines of their dorms. Some students may even be feeling depressed, uninterested in their studies or lethargic, symptoms they may not know are connected to the cold weather.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a subcategory of depression that typically begins in the late fall or early winter and goes away during the spring and summer months. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), women are four times more likely to be diagnosed with SAD than men are, and college students are particularly susceptible to experiencing symptoms due to their irregular sleep schedule and heavy workloads.
Because SAD is considered a form of depression, many symptoms between the two coincide. Some common symptoms include low energy; increased feelings of stress, anxiety or irritability; lowered mood; increased weight; hypersomnia and social withdrawal. Students often dismiss these symptoms and attribute them to their increased amount of schoolwork and stress, being stuck inside or simply the winter blues. However, in actuality they could be indicators of a more serious problem.
SAD does not have a definite cause, but there are concrete theories as to why people experience it only in the winter months. A prominent theory put forth by the NIMH is the overproduction of the hormone melatonin, which is instrumental in regulating sleep cycle and the body’s circadian rhythm. Darkness increases the production of melatonin, and as the days become shorter with the transition from autumn to winter, melatonin levels greatly increase, leading to people feeling sleepier and more lethargic. If not properly handled, this lethargy translates to low energy throughout the day and devolves until more symptoms manifest.
Serotonin has also been found to play a role in the development in SAD. The serotonergic system controls mood, emotion, appetite and sleep, so an imbalance in this system commonly leads to mood swings, irritability and lowered mood. According to a study conducted by the Meerut Institute of Engineering and Technology, the lowest level of serotonin is found in brain tissue in the winter months of December and January, and although there appears to be no direct cause for this decrease, serotonin levels are consistently low in patients suffering from SAD.
Students that are most at risk of experiencing SAD are those who have moved to New England from warmer or more temperate climates, those who have a pre-existing depression or bipolar disorder and those who have a family history of other types of depression. Fortunately, there are strategies one can incorporate into daily life that have the ability to alleviate symptoms of seasonal depression.
Eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly (30-minute sessions, three times a week), limiting sleep to no more than 10 hours per night and effectively managing overall stress level can all help lessen the effects of SAD. A structured form of treatment includes light therapy, which entails sitting in front of a light box every morning from early fall until late spring. Light therapy is a common course of treatment for SAD because the light replaces the diminished sunlight exposure that occurs in the fall and winter with filtered light that is about 20 times more powerful than ordinary indoor lighting.
Psychotherapy is also useful to many people who suffer from SAD. It can help identify negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. Therapists will often begin with behavioral activation, which seeks to help the person find activities that are engaging and pleasurable in the winter, both indoors and outdoors, to improve coping mechanisms for cold weather.