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Has Winter White Turned You Blue?

As fall changes to winter, do you sense a change in your mood, as well? While days get shorter and darkness more plentiful, do you feel slowed down or unmotivated to wake up? Maybe it's difficult to focus on schoolwork or relationships. Quite possibly, you just feel down in the dumps. If you can answer yes to any of these questions and make a personal connection to any of these images, you are not alone. What you may be experiencing is season changes in mood and behavior, known as seasonality.

Affecting an estimated 6% of the U.S. population, seasonality can actually cause a great deal of distress and difficulties in functioning, both at work and in one's personal life. An individual suffering from such a change is said to be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD- a condition now widely accepted by the medial community and public at large. Not to be confused with a full depression diagnosis, SAD is a mood disorder associated with depressive episodes and related to seasonal variations of light.

Symptoms of Season Affective Disorder (SAD) Include:

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

These symptoms must be regularly occurring during fall and winter months, and must also be present for two years prior to diagnosis.

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

Why Do You Get It?

As the season changes, there is a shift in our "biological clocks" partly in response to the changes in sunlight patterns. The shift can cause our biological clocks to fall out of step with our daily schedules. Individuals experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder have a difficult time adjusting to the shortage of sunlight in the winter months. SAD symptoms are most pronounced in January and February when the days are shortest.

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

Those At Risk:

Young people and women are at the highest risk for the disorder, but it can affect anyone. They do not feel bad enough to seek medical attention, but they 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 also at a higher risk for developing SAD. The first year of college is full of changes that may contribute to developing SAD. They include:

  • The physical move to college that may involve a change of climate or latitude.
  • The student's ability to cope is compromised by the increase of stress, due to the demands of college. This can create a domino effect--decrease in energy, inability to complete homework assignments, problems with classes, lack of confidence in one's abilities, feelings of depression, and so on.
  • Self-discipline is more important because parents and family are not there to get you to class or encourage you to complete assignments.
  • Lack of early morning sunlight (staying in a dark room instead of walking to your 8 am class).

There are other factors that are believed to increase your 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.

Coping With the Winter Blues

Change the environment:
  • "Light up your life"- remove drapes from windows, paint walls brighter colors or install brighter light bulbs.
  • Keep warm- turn up the heat, use electric blankets or enjoy a warm drink such as hot chocolate.

  • Regular aerobic activity such as running or walking.
  • Make sure the activity is something you enjoy so you're more likely to stick to it.
  • Find a friend to exercise with you for support and added motivation.

  • Fight bad foods with good foods.
  • Eat more complex carbohydrates (cereal, pasta, nuts) rather than simple carbs (cookies or candy).
  • Snacks are okay, as many as three times per day, but make them low calorie (apples, celery, carrots, dried fruits or popcorn).

Top Ten Ways to Avoid the Winter Blues

  1. Pay attention to your moods 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 after-the-fact defense.
  2. Try to establish a mental set that will help you to enjoy the wintertime. It is going to happen, so focus on enjoying it.
  3. Plan active events for yourself in advance of the fall.
  4. Expose yourself to as much bright light as you can. Walk outdoors on sunny days, even during the winter months. If it is gray and overcast, use as much light indoors as you can.
  5. Increase the amount of light in your home, apartment, or room. Position furniture so the windows are not blocked, open blinds and/or curtains. Places that are heavily shaded by trees block sunlight.
  6. Stay physically active and begin your physical activity before the winter blues begin to set in. Physical exercise helps relieve stress and anxiety which can accentuate SAD. Being more 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 are 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 from this season, you can probably do for yourself in all the falls and winters to come.

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 may also talk about ways to reduce stress in your life.

If you think you may have SAD, discuss your symptoms with a doctor or mental health professional. Please call the Personal Counseling Office at 814-898-6504 or stop by our office, ground floor, Reed Union Building, to schedule an appointment. All services are free and confidential.