‘Tis the Season for Seasonal Affective Disorder
College Students Be Aware and Beware
“My depression is at its peak in fall and winter. I would stay in my bed and hibernate until spring if I could,” said Brooke Holden, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in Environmental Science at Worcester State University.
Holden has suffered from depression since her adolescence and has been diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
She is not alone: Many other college students will begin to experience symptoms of SAD as the seasons being to change within the upcoming months.
“After the holidays are over and the weather is cold and dreary, those months from January to April they’re really tough. All I ever want to do is sleep,” Holden said.
SAD is defined by The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine as a mood disorder in which major depressive episodes and/or manic episodes
occur at predictable times of the year, with depressive episodes typically occurring during the fall and winter months. Seasonal affective disorder is believed to be relatively common. The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine estimates that up to 6 percent of the population may experience SAD, and up to 20 percent of Americans may suffer from a mild version of the symptoms associated with SAD.
“SAD is four times more common in women than in men. Although some children and teenagers get SAD, it usually doesn’t start in people younger than age twenty. Your chance of getting SAD goes down as you get older,” according to American Academy of Family Physicians.
“However, men with the disorder are more likely to have severe symptoms,” according to The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine.
This data shows that the individuals with the highest risk of SAD are young adults in their early twenties. This means that many college students have a higher risk of being affected by the disorder.
A study conducted by Kathryn G. Low, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, found that many students who come from the south to attend a New England college or university are more susceptible to SAD. When tested against other categories such as gender and year of college,“the interaction between hometown and change in depression over time was significant, with the southern group experiencing the greatest increase in depression,” Low’s study results showed.
Although it is not known with certainty what causes SAD, according to The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, many theories concerning the origins of SAD suggest that it is caused by irregularities in an individual’s biological rhythms that are triggered by the lengthening or shortening of daylight that occurs with the changing seasons. The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine suspects that SAD can be caused by excessive melatonin release during winter and may be caused at least in part by reduced serotonin levels, which could account for feelings of drowsiness or depression.
“In humans, melatonin plays an important role in the regulation of sleep cycles,” and as for serotonin, “changes in its concentration are associated with several mood disorders. Some cases of mental depression are caused by reduced quantities or reduced activity of serotonin in the brain,” according to Britannica Academic.
Not everyone with SAD will experience the same symptoms according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, but some common symptoms include: a change in appetite, especially a craving for sweet or starchy foods, weight gain, a heavy feeling in the arms or legs, a drop in energy level, fatigue, tendency to oversleep, difficulty concentrating, irritability, increased sensitivity to social rejection, and avoidance of social situations.
“I get very sensitive, sad, and mopey. The smallest things make me freak out, usually on the people closest to me like my boyfriend or my mom; I become very short tempered,” said Holden explaining her own personal symptoms of SAD.
“I’m extra judgmental of myself and insecure about my body, which has always been weird to me because in winter you usually show less skin. There’s no logical explanation for why I feel certain ways about myself. I know I’m not a bad person and that there’s nothing wrong with my body—I’m not mean, ugly, or overweight,” Holden explained.
Holden balances being a full-time college student enrolled in 6 classes, a part time job as a waitress, a long-term boyfriend, divorced parents, a twin brother with autism, and a social life.
“One of the worst aspects of my depression is when I become so upset and consumed by my responsibilities that I can’t even function to do them; it’s like a cycle,” Holden said.
Holden has developed ways of coping with her depression over the years. She has found several things which help to get her through those tough, dreary winter months.
“My anxiety medication, Lexapro, which I’ve been taking since 2015 has helped me a lot; it really does make a difference,” Holden said. “My friends really help me too. Spending time with people and not just isolating myself is helpful; my friends are able to take my mind off feeling sad, even if it’s just for a short period of time. Just by making me laugh and spending time with me, my friends put me in a good mood and allow me to tuck my depression away in the back of my mind while I’m with them.”
“Working out and going to the gym is also a great outlet. It lets me concentrate on a task at hand instead of thinking about the millions of things I have going on. Plus, it’s good for your body and your health. It just makes me feel better about myself and gives me a sense of accomplishment,” Holden said.
The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine suggests a few treatments for SAD. The first method is phototherapy, also called light therapy, which exposes the patient to bright artificial light to compensate for the gloominess of winter. An at home version of this would be going outside or rearranging spaces in your home and office to ensure
maximum expose to light which will help SAD symptoms. Anti-depressant medications, such as fluoxetine (Prozac), are also a common treatment method. An alternative to anti-depressant medications are over-the-counter melatonin tablets which may help to regulate sleep patterns alleviating SAD symptoms according to The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. It is important to keep in mind that a therapist or doctor should be consulted to properly diagnose and treat SAD.
“If you’re feeling depressed or suicidal definitely reach out to someone,” Holden said. “No one is going to judge you. No one wants you to feel that way and it’s definitely not your fault that you feel that way. Don’t be afraid to go to a therapist or doctor either. It doesn’t make you a weak person for seeking help, it makes you a strong person for having the courage to take your life into your own hands, confront your depression, and acknowledge that you need help.”
“Reaching out for help might seem scary or intimidating, but it’s not once you actually do it. The feeling of relief is more than you’ll expect; it’s absolutely worth it,” Holden said.
“If there was one thing I wished people knew and understood about depression it would be that it’s usually not visible,” Holden said. “People, like myself, can always appear happy and like there couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with them, but they’re only showing you the person that they want you to see, not the way that they actually feel or the person they are when they’re alone. You never know what someone is going through or what they’re feeling, and that’s the hard part about this illness.”