Brace Yourself: A Look Into Winter Seasonal Affective Disorder
November is in full swing, and it’s time to brace ourselves as university students for the coming weeks. But what is it exactly that we’re bracing for?
Among my friends and I, there comes a noticeable shift when daylight savings hits, as the sun begins to set as early as half past three in the afternoon. Despite the increasing workload and heightened atmosphere of stress as exams loom ever closer, shorter days and colder nights makes productivity feel almost impossible. An aura of fatigue seems to set over everyone as we put our heads down to work, praying for the winter holiday to come as soon as possible.
Though there are many causes that can contribute to this tangible overall gloom, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or the winter blues, more commonly referred to as “seasonal depression,” could definitely be the culprit for many of us.
Characterised by an onset of symptoms during specific cycles, SAD can occur during both the summer and the winter, although is more common during the winter. According to Anna Kane and Michael J Lowis’ 1999 study, those who suffer from Winter Blues tend to preempt mood changes, bracing for the months during which fatigue, anxiety, and an inability to function sets in. So if this is what we’re bracing for, the general anxiety felt by students during this time can be explained.
However, self-diagnosis is a slippery slope. It’s important to remember that a couple of bad days does not automatically mean you have depression, while a couple of good days does not automatically mean you have gotten better. To understand the atmosphere of this time of year, it is important to understand the intricacies of Winter SAD and the ways in which it specifically can impact students.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
When days become shorter, longer periods of darkness can have profound impacts on our psyches and bodies. Disrupted circadian rhythms and a tendency of serotonin and melatonin to shift with the change of seasons, as noted in a 2003 study by Andres Magnusson and Diane Bovin, leaves sufferers of SAD feeling unbalanced and unhappy during the winter months, often leading to an onset of symptoms.
SAD diagnosis is difficult, as it is characterised by symptoms shared with many depressive or anxiety disorders. However, according to Magnusson in 2005, a diagnosis of SAD requires the recurring display of symptoms for at least two consecutive years, with a remission in symptoms when the season comes to an end. Typically beginning between September and November, symptoms may last until February or until April, although more severe cases note recurring symptoms up to the beginning of summer.
Relying on Dr Magnusson’s analysis, there are a few notable and common symptoms of Winter Blues:
1) Fatigue and difficulty concentrating or processing information
Though most depressive disorders note a difficulty sleeping, SAD is specific in that most patients experience oversleeping yet do not feel rested. Sufferers of SAD often sleep in excess, further disrupting their sleeping patterns, yet they continue to experience excessive fatigue. As a result, their ability to function and process information throughout their work day is negatively impacted. This can also lead to a decrease in sex drive and difficulty in maintaining a social life, which is noted by most SAD patients.
Similar to the above, many patients of depressive disorders may experience a difficulty in eating healthily or consistently, while patients with SAD overwhelmingly note an increase in appetite. Interestingly, SAD is characterised by a craving for starchy or sugary foods, often consumed in the evening or at night, resulting in overeating and weight gain.
3) Anxiety and irritability
Perhaps as a result of the other symptoms, SAD is also characterised by general anxiety and irritability. When experiencing depressive symptoms, it is difficult to remain grounded, resulting in an onset of these two symptoms. Those who suffer from SAD often also struggle with general anxiety, resulting in the compounding symptoms of a generalised anxiety disorder.
Though each of these symptoms mimics common depressive symptoms, sufferers of SAD are often reluctant to seek out help, as many experience remission after the winter season comes to an end. In general cases, patients are able to attribute their change in mood to increased work or fatigue, explaining away the depressive or anxious symptoms they may face. By chalking it up to, “Oh, I’m just tired,” or, “I just need to get to the end of this semester,” symptoms of SAD are ignored, potentially prolonging episodes.
Risk Factors and Vulnerable Groups
Despite the range of people who suffer from Winter Blues, according to Bovin and Magnusson, SAD is markedly more common among women, typically beginning around the age of 20 and decreasing around the age of 50. Furthermore, genetic markers, as well as ethnicity, may have an impact on one’s vulnerability to experiencing SAD. If family members have experienced Winter Blues, or if one’s family tree hails from warmer climates, and therefore more adjusted to winter seasons, they may be more vulnerable to experiencing winter blues.
The risk factors for SAD seem obvious and are notably relevant to students here in St Andrews. A loss of sunlight as daylight savings results in shorter days, as well as an increase in stress as workloads grow in anticipation for exams, can trigger SAD.
As Pennsylvania State University highlights, university students, particularly first years, are at higher risk for experiencing SAD as they physically move to a location that they perhaps may not be acclimated to, experience compromised ability to function due to high stress, struggle with self-discipline with the loss of constant adult supervision, and may get less exposure to sunlight if they stay in accommodation.
Coping mechanisms and therapy
If you find yourself struggling with these symptoms, there are several ways you can get help or make yourself feel better. Though SAD is often not taken seriously by those who suffer from it, it is important to recognise SAD as an offshoot of a generalised depressive disorder. If we can all agree that depression is debilitating and requires attention, can we not agree that SAD also deserves therapy? By paying attention to energy levels and ability to function in social settings, those familiar with the recurrence of symptoms during this time can seek out professional help.
There are also, of course, a plethora of coping mechanisms.
1) Bring in more light
Light therapy has been a studied and proven therapy used to alleviate symptoms in SAD patients, and you can mimic this in your home. By keeping more lights on, opening up blinds, and even investing in a sunlight simulator, symptoms can be treated enough to help you get through your day without feeling so exhausted. Light therapy has been proven to be more effective in the morning, so simply making sure to get up and open up the blinds to let in some light can be crucial.
2) Stay active
Staying active both socially and physically can greatly benefit those who suffer from SAD. Physical activity releases endorphins and relieves anxiety, offering SAD patients relief through exercise. Similarly, pushing yourself to take part in social interactions can remind you of the support you have and relieve depressive symptoms.
3) Brace yourself
Although maybe not the most intuitive advice, those who suffer from SAD are often aware that their symptoms may be getting worse or recurring during specific months. Preparing for this time by planning specific activities, getting in the routine of physical activity, or altering your diet to include more complex carbs to avoid sugar cravings can all offset the intensity of symptoms that may occur. By establishing a healthy and reliable routine before the symptoms of SAD occur, patients are able to support themselves more firmly during vulnerable seasons.
Whether or not you suffer from winter SAD, it is important to note that the stress you feel now is not permanent. Though the work may feel so endless, exams so daunting, and home so far away, remembering that you are not alone is crucial in avoiding isolation that may lead to more severe problems. By reaching out to friends, family, or professional help, maybe we will not have to brace ourselves so hard, and maybe the tangible atmosphere of fatigue can actually be one of anticipation. As Dr Rosenthal states, remember that “you don’t have to do it all yourself.”
If you would like further support for your wellbeing, please contact the following:
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Illustration: Liza Vasilyeva