How to Deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder in College

winter depression

According to Psychology Today, some 10 million Americans are estimated to be affected by seasonal affective disorder. Another 10 to 20 percent are estimated to have a mild form of SAD. Of these, some 6 percent are so severely affected that hospitalization is required. These numbers showcase the scale of the problem. This article aims to shed light on Seasonal Affective Disorder. It may or may not be difficult to imagine, but with the changing of the season, for a period of 4 or 5 months, you feel as if all the energy and happiness in your body has drained out of you. 

Any kind of depression, temporary or not, can be a challenge to overcome. But it’s better not to just sit still and skip a few months of your life. Here you can find relevant information on what Seasonal Affective Disorder is and how to overcome it.

Further in the article:

Seasonal Depression Definition

Precise and data-based information about all well-known psychological disorders can be found in DSM-5. The Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders is a complete handbook of disorders by the American Psychiatric Association. Seasonal Affective Disorder does not hold a separate chapter in the manual. Instead, it is presented as a part of the Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern. Thus, it is not “just” the winter blues but a serious condition to be treated, be it on your own or with counseling support.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is part of Major Depressive Disorder. It is a condition that is triggered by the cold season and the lack of sunlight.

Seasonal Affective Disorder: Symptoms to Consider

Why is it essential to define the symptoms precisely? 

Some short-term episodes of a bad mood, low energy, or insomnia happen to pretty much everyone and are a relatively normal experience. If you feel sad because of something unpleasant or traumatic, if you’re feeling tired, it may be time to take some time to recharge and take care of yourself. The recommendations from this article are also relevant in these situations. 

However, it helps to distinguish between short-term sadness and systematic depression disorders, including those caused by seasonal change. Here are the first seven symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder from DSM-5. There is more to it, so check the full primary source after reading this article.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Source – DSM-5

How to define whether you have seasonal depression?  

To be diagnosed with SAD, the person should have the visible manifestations of the symptoms for two weeks in a row. It means that you most likely do not have a SAD if:

  • The symptoms are rare, inconsistent, and do not last according to the terms, listed in the manual
  • You experience only a few of them, not all five together
  • You have been diagnosed with other conditions so the symptoms may intertwine

The best way to get a final diagnosis is to speak with a professional psychologist. However, reading up on DSM-5 doesn’t hurt and is better than nothing if asking someone for help isn’t an option. If this is the case for you, at the end of this article, you’ll find options you can take advantage of if you don’t have the resources to pay for the services of a specialist. 

How do SAD symptoms affect students?

Observing one’s mental and emotional well-being is something students shouldn’t ignore. And dealing with depressive episodes is complicated, even with no additional responsibilities. However, depressive episodes can be damaging if you are expected to deliver excellent academic results from such a poor psychological place. Specific symptoms of seasonal depression in students are the following:

  • Constant fatigue, loss of energy, and lack of aspiration for things that were pleasant before
  • Constant feelings of frustration, helplessness, and the wish to quit all responsibilities
  • Inability to recharge the energy level even after a solid rest/vacation
  • The poor attention, lack of concentration, and decrease in the mental capacities

If these symptoms are consistent regardless of the time of the year, please do find some professional examination and help. Below is a list of Community Mental Health Centers, where you can find free or low-cost diagnosis and support. 

Why Do People Experience Seasonal Affects? 

Fall and winter depression, or winter blues in British English, is not solely a psychological phenomenon. External illumination affects our circadian rhythms and hormonal balance. For instance, the hormones in question are serotonin, the “long-lasting happiness hormone,” and melatonin, which causes sleepiness. 

This study shows that during cloudy winter months, melatonin production increases when the body receives little daylight, causing constant fatigue. Conversely, serotonin level decreases with the lack of Vitamin D through the long autumn and winter months. Science has yet to confirm the precise correlations between these variables, but the lack of natural light is still seen as the main reason for seasonal depression symptoms. For students, there are other variables. The feelings of sadness may correlate with the start of the new semester, the end of summer vacation, and new responsibilities.

Phases of the SAD

How to Improve the Situation

One treatment for SAD is quite obvious: getting as much sunlight as possible or getting an artificial replacement for sunlight. Hormone and vitamin balancing can also help. Sports, healthy food, and a good sleep routine management are other great options. More extreme cases require professional psychological counseling or meeting a psychiatrist for treatment with medication. 

The National Institute of Mental Health identifies four major categories of treatment for SAD: light therapy, psychotherapy, Vitamin D, and antidepressant medication. 

However, if you are reading this article and find you’re feeling low or depressed, and unmotivated to even move, you are likely disinclined to start with these energy-consuming actions. So, here is a list of baby steps you can take to help yourself navigate your way out of this condition. 

Step one. You are not your condition

The very first issue you probably have is the feeling that something is wrong with you for experiencing such symptoms. People tend to identify themselves with their condition, failing to see that they are something bigger than their current mood. What can one do about it?

  • The outside observer. Your emotions are natural, important, and have the right to be. Yet, try separating your personality from what you feel. You are not your depression; you are not your melancholy and not a person who is inherently weak and sad. These are the symptoms, and they are treatable. Write your own manta about it and try repeating it. 
  • The art of small actions. The benefits of walking are unquestionable and especially relevant to SAD. However, if you don’t feel like going for a long walk or doing sports while depressed, consider just going to the nearest park and sitting for a while. Or you could put a comfy chair on the balcony and spend some time there with a large blanket wrapped around you. If that’s too much for now, you could even just open the window and let some fresh air in. They’re small actions that might seem pointless, but they can help, and at least get you started on the path of feeling better. 

If you have an emergency and feel like your condition threatens your life and health, use the official crisis text line (text CONNECT to 741741). 

Step two. Hunting the sunlight

Apart from wanting to get as many positive emotions as possible, it can really help to get yourself some Vitamin D and serotonin. Therefore, in the hunt for sunlight, you can try the following:

  • Be near windows as part of your routine. Get a seat near the window in your classes, and if possible, find a place with floor-to-ceiling windows. It can be the library, a nearby cafe, or a coworking space.
  • Light therapy. If you study in the state of Washington under a near-constant cover of clouds and rain (and you’re not a vampire) you can use the artificial equivalent for sunlight. Phototherapy uses light boxes with about 10,000 lux (the unit of luminance). However, phototherapy has its own problems and isn’t recommended for those with cataracts, pregnancy, melanoma, or other dermatic disorders. 

Step three. If nothing helps

Don’t be afraid to reach out to the professional services available to help you. 

  • Community mental health centers. Based on 2022 statistics, there were about 12,000 registered mental health facilities in the U.S. There may be one available in your region. 
  • On-campus support. Many universities offer counseling services to their students. Your college’s website will mostly likely have information about what options are offered.
  • 7 Cups online counseling. 7 Cups is a free resource. It’s volunteer-based counseling for those who just want someone to talk to. Also, use the official crisis text line (text CONNECT to 741741).

And there’s some more good news. Fall and winter depression at least, typically last for months instead of years. This is not to make light of what you’re going through, winter blues can be a serious disruption to your life. But it’s finite. Take care of yourself and do your best to make your own internal sunshine during the cold and cloudy seasons.

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Victoria Davis
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Victoria is TOP-writer at working in the Healthcare and Life Science Department for more than 5 years now. In her scarce free time Victoria volunteers and provides first aid training.