Winter is Coming: a Student’s Guide to Seasonal Affective Disorder
by Shafer Higgins
As the days grow shorter and the nights grow colder, many of you may be feeling low on energy, less motivated, and just generally down in the dumps. You’re not alone; according to psychologytoday.com, as many as 10 million Americans suffer from what is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, with 10 million more reporting milder versions of some of the symptoms. The symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, which often goes by the rather cheeky acronym SAD, include: tiredness, irritability, oversleeping while never feeling rested, appetite changes (particularly increased craving for carbohydrates), as well as loss of interest in activities and feelings of hopelessness similar to depression. While its exact causes remain a mystery, SAD appears to be at least in part a result of lower sunlight levels in the Winter and Fall months, a particularly inconvenient time for students as the worst of its effects can coincide with final exams and projects. If symptoms of SAD become severe enough, medical attention should be sought. However there are many simple and easy to implement methods to help avoid or alleviate symptoms of SAD.
Getting just 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise 4 or 5 times per week can do wonders for relieving symptoms of SAD. As one of the main features of SAD is low motivation, getting out and exercising to combat it can seem like a veritable Catch-22. But have no fear, “exercise” can mean something simple as a brisk walk. Try to time this walk around midday when that scarce winter sunlight is at its most plentiful. Speaking of sunlight…
As noted earlier, one of the primary causes of SAD is thought to be the relative lack of sunlight in the colder months of the year. Sunlight is essential for healthy functioning and is instrumental in the regulation of your biological clock as well as levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin, both of which have a hand in mood levels and sleep patterns. The lower quantity and quality of sunlight during SAD’s dark reign can be alleviated by what is known as a light box, an extra bright lamp meant to mimic the spectrum and intensity of sunlight. A review of some of the best light boxes available can be found here: http://thesweethome.com/reviews/best-light-therapy-lamp/.
One drawback is that they can be rather pricy for someone on a student’s budget. Depending on the severity of the problem, merely making a conscious effort to expose oneself to sunlight as much as possible during the day may be sufficient. Admittedly, a trek outdoors can be a daunting prospect in the dead of winter. For those short on cash and patience for the cold, there may be a solution: while not medically proven, some studies have suggested that exposure to normal artificial light in high doses may be beneficial. Which essentially just means making sure you are spending time in well lit interiors whenever possible.
Get more vitamin D
One of the main benefits of sunlight is that it provides the human body with much needed vitamin D which is essential for, among other things, the warding off of sluggishness and depression. However sunlight isn’t the only source of this essential vitamin. It can also be found in common foods such as salmon, tuna, mushrooms, eggs and any vitamin D fortified milk.
Vitamin D supplements exist as well, though it would be cost effective and doubly beneficial to simply integrate these relatively cheap and healthy foods into your diet as poor eating habits can have adverse effects on mood and energy levels.
It is widely held that smell is the sense most strongly associated with emotions, and this recognition could account in part for the explosion of aromatherapy in recent years. Exposure to certain essential oils, particularly bergamot, lemon, and most citrus-based oils, has been shown to elevate mood and sense of well-being. While it is one of the less scientific methods to combat SAD, it is also cheap, easy and poses little to no risk and therefore certainly worth a try.
Stick to a schedule
Maintaining a consistent daily schedule, especially with regards to sleep, can be particularly difficult for students who often have irregular daily schedules. But as erratic sleep patterns are a leading factor in SAD, it’s worth trying to regulate your day as best as you can if you find yourself afflicted with the “winter blues”. Waking up and going to bed around the same time every day has beneficial effects on your sleep. Even eating meals at regular intervals has been shown to stave off weight gain, which is a common side-effect of SAD.
Keep a journal
SAD mimics many aspects of depression, such as loss of interest and motivation as well as feelings of hopelessness. Journaling for around 20 minutes a day can be a useful and straightforward way to exorcise negative feelings as well as activating parts of the brain often left unstimulated during extended periods of low mood.
These are just some of the simple and low cost lifestyle tweaks that can be implemented in the battle against Seasonal Affective Disorder. Stay warm and stay chipper, folks. Winter is coming.