How to get over the winter blues: Seasonal affective disorder treatment

The transition from Fall to Winter can be difficult, especially with days being shorter.

The transition from Fall to Winter can be difficult, especially with days being shorter.

Are you feeling S.A.D.? Seasonal affective disorder is a condition in which the lack of daylight makes you feel lethargic, moody and anxious. Now that the clocks have changed after Daylight Saving Time (note: it’s Saving not Savings), it’s getting dark earlier in the day. Treatment for S.A.D. includes light therapy, brightening up dorm rooms and getting exercise to make the most out of college life. If you’re experiencing the symptoms described below as the dark hours roll on, visit your student health department for extra help.

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder

Since humans evolved to be active during sunlight and sleepy during darkness, our biological clock, or circadian rhythm, gets out of whack when the responsibilities of modern living, like working or studying late at night, contradict the light/dark cycle.

The reduced amount of sunlight can cause a lower level of the brain chemical serotonin, a neurotransmitter, which affects mood and makes us feel depressed. S.A.D. affects young adults, women and people who live at extreme northern or southern regions of the world more than the general population.

Homesickness in college students and a disruption of usual holiday preparations and activities can exacerbate S.A.D. “I suffer from SAD and I’ve always really struggled in the winters a lot more than any other time of the year,” blogged a 19-year-old college student in London in “Daniel’s Story,” posted on the Students Against Depression website. “When I still lived at home, we came up with a few ways to deal with the SAD, like a light box and going to the gym a lot more…. After I told my parents, one of the feelings I remember is relief…. It was nice to be able to lean on someone else a bit and feel I didn’t have to do it all on my own.”

It’s time to seek professional help when S.A.D. turns into:

  • suicidal thoughts
  • depression, anxiety, hopelessness
  • difficulty concentrating
  • social withdrawal
  • substance abuse
  • physical abuse to others
  • problems functioning at work or school
  • the inability to perform activities of daily living (eating regularly, sleeping, getting up and dressed for the day)

Treatment for seasonal affective disorder

A doctor will give you a physical exam to determine if you have any other underlying illness, mental or physical, that is explaining or compounding your S.A.D. symptoms. A common treatment for S.A.D. is light therapy from a light box. The light box mimics outdoor sunlight to trick your brain chemicals into believing it’s daylight. Light boxes are expensive, so many college health centers or counseling centers have a light therapy box for your use. For more severe cases of S.A.D., a doctor may prescribe medication, such as Paxil, Zoloft and Prozac.

“Aerobic exercise is proven to help alleviate SAD symptoms because it raises serotonin levels and reduces stress. Exercising outside can yield even greater benefits due to the natural light exposure,” according to the Bates College Student Health Center website article, “Seasonal affective disorder.” A study showed that 1 hour of outdoor activity had the same therapeutic effect of 2.5 hours of light box treatment.

What can college students do about S.A.D.?

If your symptoms aren’t severe enough for professional help, here are some simple steps to combat S.A.D. on your own:

  • sit outside to soak up the light
  • open the curtains in your dorm room to let in as much sunlight as possible
  • sit closest to the windows in class or in a café
  • get up an hour or so earlier to take advantage of morning sun
  • socialize with your friends; be active with people you feel comfortable with
  • save night time for down time and less necessary activities
  • avoid junk food, sugary and salty snacks, which make you feel heavy and tired
  • eat a balanced diet with omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, eggs, walnuts) and whole grains, which give you energy
  • write down your thoughts in a poem, journal or blog
  • practice meditation and yoga, which some say help to bring balance and focus during the dark months
  • if possible during winter break, go to a warm sunny location

Cornell College’s “Seasonal affective disorder” page on its website also offered these tips:

  • limit your sleep to no more than 7-9 hours a night
  • use full spectrum, high intensity fluorescent light bulbs
  • wear brightly colored clothing
  • add some color to your white walls

Have you had seasonal affective disorder? If so, what have you done to feel better?

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