Home Campus Directory | A-Z Index

Do the fall and winter seasons make you feel "blue?" Do the longer, darker days bring you down?

It's possible that you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), but there is help and hope!

To learn more, please read the information below. To schedule a confidential appointment with someone to help you through this problem, please contact CounselingServicesBeaver@psu.edu, 724-773-3961.

 

As fall changes to winter, do you sense a change in your mood? As days get shorter and darkness more plentiful, do you feel slowed down or unmotivated to wake up? Do you have difficulty focusing on your work or relationships? Do you just feel "blue" and down in the dumps?

If you answer "yes" to any of these questions and make a personal connection to any of these images, you're not alone. What you're experiencing might be seasonal changes in mood and behavior, also known as seasonality.

Seasonality affects about 6% of the country's population and can actually cause a great deal of distress and difficulty in functioning at work and in one's personal life. A person suffering from this problem is considered to be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, known as SAD. This is a condition widely accepted by the medical community and the public. Although SAD should not be confused with a diagnosis of full depression, SAD is a mood disorder associated with depressive episodes and related to seasonal variations of light. 

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) include, but aren't limited to:

  • Depression
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Overeating
  • Lack of sex drive
  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating or processing information
  • A craving for sugary and/or starchy foods

These symptoms must occur regularly during the fall and winter months and must be present for two years before a diagnosis of SAD can be made. However, help and relief are available!

Do you notice subtle changes in your mood, but feel that they're not drastic enough to seek professional help? You may be experiencing a lesser form of SAD, known as the "winter blues." This condition can make you feel less cheerful, energetic, creative, and productive during the dark winter days than at other times of the year.

Why does SAD occur?

As the seasons change, there's a shift in our "biological clocks" which is due partly to our responses to changes in sunlight patterns. The shift can cause our biological clocks to fall out of step with our daily schedules. Individuals who experience SAD frequently have a difficult time adjusting to the shortage of sunlight in the winter months. Usually, symptoms of SAD are most pronounced in January and February when the days are shortest.

Melatonin, which is a sleep-related hormone, is sometimes referred to as the "master biological clock" and has been linked to SAD. Melatonin is secreted by the brain's pineal gland and is believed to cause symptoms of depression. Melatonin is produced at increased levels in the dark so, when the days are shorter and darker, the production of this hormone increases.

Who's at risk for SAD?

Young people and women are at the highest risk for the disorder, but it can affect anyone. Most people don't feel badly enough to seek medical attention, but they definitely feel less cheerful in the fall and winter. SAD typically begins around the age of 20 and decreases around the age of 50.

College freshmen with a history of problematic seasonal changes are at a higher risk of developing SAD. The first year of college is full of changes that may contribute to developing SAD:

  • The physical move to college that may involve a change of climate or latitude.
  • A student's ability to cope may be compromised by increased stress and the demands of college. This can create a domino effect, i.e. decrease in energy, inability to complete homework assignments, problems with classes, lack of confidence in one's abilities, feelings of depression, and more.
  • Self-discipline is more important because parents and family are not there to ensure that a student gets to class and/or completes assignments.
  • The lack of early morning sunlight, i.e. staying in a dark room instead of walking to an early morning class, can be a problem for many with SAD.

There are other factors that are believed to increase the risk of developing SAD. Three key factors that may lead to the onset of SAD are identified below:

  1. Inherent vulnerability: Studies show that SAD runs in families with a history of different types of depression, including SAD.
  2. Light deprivation: Changes in latitude and season resulting in decreased exposure to light can negatively affect mood.
  3. Stress: An increased level of stress is associated with the onset of SAD.

 How to cope with the winter "blues"

Change the environment:

  • "Light up your life" by removing drapes from windows, painting walls brighter colors, and/or installing brighter light bulbs.
  • Keep warm, turn up the heat, use electric blankets, and/or enjoy a warm drink.

Exercise:

  • Regular aerobic activity, i.e. running, walking, or working out, is very helpful in coping with the winter 'blues."
  • Make sure the activity is something you'll enjoy so you're more likely to stick to it.
  • Find a friend to exercise with you for support and added motivation.

Diet:

  • Fight bad foods with good foods.
  • Eat more complex carbohydrates (cereal, pasta, nuts) rather than simple carbs (candy or cookies).
  • Snacks are OK and can be eaten as frequently as three times a day, but they should be low-calorie snacks such as apples, celery, carrots, dried fruit, or popcorn

Top 10 ways to avoid the winter "blues"

  1. Pay attention to your mood and energy levels. If you realize that your spirits begin to sink at the end of summer, take pre-emptive action. A good offense is better than an "after-the-fact" defense.
  2. Try to establish a mental set that will help you to enjoy winter. Winter arrives, whether we like it or not, so try to focus on ways to enjoy it.
  3. Plan activities and events for yourself throughout the fall.
  4. Expose yourself to as much bright light as possible. Walk outdoors on sunny days, even during the winter months. If it's gray and overcast outside, use as much indoor lighting as possible.
  5. Increase the amount of light in your room, home, apartment, or office. Position furniture so that windows aren't blocked, and open all blinds and curtains. Avoid places that are heavily shaded by trees that block sunlight.
  6. Stay physically active and begin your physical activity before the winter blues begin. Physical exercise helps relieve stress and anxiety, both of which can accentuate the problems caused by SAD. Being physically fit can make you feel better about yourself.
  7. If possible, take a winter vacation or spring break in a sunny, warm location.
  8. Learn more effective ways to manage stress.
  9. Do something nice for yourself every day.
  10. If you feel yourself sinking and realize you're losing control, don't feel ashamed or try to hide it. Remember that many people feel this way. Seek competent, professional help. What you learn to do in coping with SAD now will help you through all the future fall and winter seasons.
  11. Psychotherapy helps you identify and modify negative thoughts and behaviors that may play a role in bringing about symptoms of SAD. You and your counselor can talk about ways to reduce stress in your life.
  12. If you think you might have SAD or any other problems, discuss your symptoms with a doctor or mental health professional as soon as possible.

For more information, consult the books listed below. Also, please seek help by contacting CounselingServicesBeaver@psu.edu, 724-773-3961.

"Winter Blues, Revised Edition: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder"
By Dr. Norman Rosenthal

"SAD: Seasonal Affective Disorder - Winter Depression"
By Angela Smith