Do you notice yourself feeling more lethargic during the fall and winter months? Or do you notice your mood starts to drop as the snow starts to fall and the sun sets earlier each day? If so, you may be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is much more than just the winter blues.
The Canadian Mental Health Association currently reports that 15 per cent of Canadians will experience mild forms of depression over the fall and winter months at some point in their lifetime. Approximately three per cent of these Canadians will suffer severely during the seasonal change, often due to a clinically recognized condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder.
The signs and symptoms that accompany SAD can be much like other mood disorders, but the main difference is that these symptoms recur for at least two consecutive winter seasons, with no other viable explanation for the changes in behavior. Typical symptoms may include changes in appetite with weight gain or loss, decreased energy or fatigue, difficulty concentrating, withdrawal from social situations, loss of motivation for regular activity and feeling sleepy, even after a full night’s rest.
Thankfully, symptoms usually start to alleviate with the onset of spring. Students who suffer from SAD may notice they have great difficulty making it to class, getting proper rest or maintaining their grades.
As days become shorter over the fall and winter months, individuals start experiencing reduced levels of daylight exposure. Those who are at a higher risk for developing SAD are individuals who live in communities north of the equator.
Genetics also play a factor: if you are female or if you have a relative who suffers from SAD, your risk is greater. Additionally, those with a prior history of mood disorders are more susceptible.
While there is no confirmed cause for SAD, the Mayo Clinic explains how the condition is correlated to variations in light levels. Human have an “internal clock,” called a circadian rhythm, which directs physiological and biochemical processes in the body. The clock resets itself roughly every 24 hours when your body connects with a bright light source, such as the sun in the morning.
This biological clock can be easily misaligned due to disruptions in our environment. Jet lag, exposure to bright screens from electronics or staying up all night — and then sleeping through the day — can drastically throw off our internal clock. In the case of SAD, circadian rhythms are disrupted from limited, natural sunlight levels due to seasonal changes.
One solution that is proven effective for 60 to 80 per cent of SAD suffers is light therapy. This involves sitting near a speciality-made light for roughly 30 minutes a day. This form of therapy is helpful because being exposed to this light source assists with the alignment of previously disrupted circadian rhythms, ultimately restoring normal patterns of sleep and other biological processes.
It should be noted that the use of a light box can have side effects such as insomnia from overexposure, so consult a health professional before plugging in
CMHA has some simple solutions to help ease the milder symptoms of SAD, offering easy techniques to keep your circadian rhythm in check. One option is to spend time outdoors in order to maximize sunlight exposure. You can do this by avoiding the underground tunnels when walking to classes and choosing outdoor activities during the weekend.
Other options include starting a regular exercise routine — make use of your PAC pass early in the year, before any SAD symptoms take hold. It’s also a good idea to stop using electronics at least one hour before bed, as this can impact your sleep. Rather than Netflix, opt for reading a book!
If you feel like you are suffering from more than just a case of the winter blues, please see Student Health on campus for advice. The University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union also offers a Mental Health Support Group every Monday night at 7 p.m. in room 105 of the Memorial Union Building.
Graphic: Lesia Karalash / Graphics Editor