When the Weather’s Got You Down, What Can You Do?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, often referred to as Seasonal Depression, is a mood disorder that is characterized by depression in the winter months. Often referred to as SAD, it usually begins and ends at the same time, starting in the fall and continuing in the winter months, then improving again in the spring and summer. As reported in Psychiatry Advisor, one of the leading causes of SAD is caused by decreased levels in serotonin, a chemical nerve in the brain that positive and happy emotions, and increased levels in melatonin, a chemical nerve that entices sleep. 

According to HelpGuide, about 1% to 2% of the population, especially in women and young people are affected by SAD. In contrast, “a milder form of winter blues may affect as many as 10% to 20% of people.” 

The fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, more commonly known as the DSM, puts seasonal affective disorder under the category of Major Depressive Disorders as “with a seasonal pattern.” However, to be clinically diagnosed with SAD, one must experience two years of symptoms, each year at the same time of the year, and a reduction of symptoms at the same time of year.

The Siskiyou spoke with Anna D’Amato, the executive director of the Student Health and Wellness Center, about Seasonal Affective Disorder and its effects on students. It definitely “has the same symptoms of being depressed: losing motivation, sleeping a lot or not always sleeping as well, being irritable, angry…difficulty concentrating, fatigue, lack of energy, feelings of sadness, hopelessness, despair…depressed,” she says. “It can get really bad.”

D’Amato also says that the weather takes a toll on the mental health of the students. “It’s not just the rain; it’s the greyness that surrounds it too,” she says. It reflects on how one’s feeling and can bring their mood down even more. Especially if a student is not from the Southern Oregon area, coming here could be a very startling change. “If someone’s coming from a place with more sunlight or more sunlight hours than here,” she says, “That change can bring on SAD.”

The Siskiyou also spoke with J. Fraser Pierson, a professor of psychology at SOU about Seasonal Affective Disorder and how it can affect the students psychologically. “The tendency with SAD is to withdraw, to hibernate,” she says, “Which can feel helpful in the short run, but in the long run, if a person can get engaged in something they’re interested in, it can help relieve some of those symptoms. It’s not a cure-all; these are just things that are helpful for a person to do.” Activities like yoga or meditation can be beneficial to students not only with trying new things if they haven’t before but also connecting with oneself. “Taking that extra time for oneself…doing the things that makes them feel good…those can also be restorative,” she says. “What does some someone know about themselves that is likely to restore their sense of equilibrium?” 

Pierson also believes that checking in with one’s friends is extremely important, especially looking for red flags that might signify that something is different. Things such as not wanting to get out of bed, thoughts of self-harm, or not as enthusiastic about things that used to interest them are signs that indicate that something may be awry. “Friends can also help friends,” she says, “Sometimes, I think our friends are apt to see us in ways that we can’t identify for ourselves.”

Overall, there are three main ways to helping conquer Seasonal Affective Disorder: light therapy, Vitamin D foods and supplements, and exercise. Taking time for self-care during this difficult time of year, whether that is taking a bubble bath, listening to music, hanging out and socializing with friends, going for a run–whatever suits the person–is also essential.

Light therapy is a popular form of treatment for seasonal affective disorder. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “SAD is especially prominent when Vitamin D stores are low.” A sun lamp is, “a full spectrum that, when shone onto skin, triggers the body’s production of Vitamin D,” which in turn reduces the feeling of depression. Sitting in front of one for 30 to 40 minutes a day can trigger the production of Vitamin D in a person.

Taking Vitamin D supplements is also an excellent way to combat SAD. Dr. Pierson suggests that “would be something to check out with a physician or nurse practitioner, to see what a person’s vitamin D levels.” Eating vitamin D rich foods, like fish, eggs, milk, and mushrooms, can also help with one’s vitamin D intake. “Being mindful about nutrition around this time of the year can be very helpful,” she says, “There is a tendency for someone going through SAD to eat lots of carbohydrates or sugary things, and that doesn’t help…there can still be comfort foods, just not the kind where one is degrading their health.” 

Another way to reduce the effects of Seasonal Effective Disorder is exercise and getting enough sunlight. “Maybe in between classes, maybe going for a 15-minute walk and trying to put that in there,” D’Amato said, “Exercise helps as well because it helps you produce hormones and other chemicals in our bodies that make us feel better.” In addition, Dr. Pierson suggested that going out for a walk in nature can be beneficial for students as well. “Here, we have the luxury of having beautiful scenery, and it’s pretty accessible…taking that first step can be difficult, but once it’s taken, there is this internal reward.” With nearby locations such as Emigrant Lake and Lithia Park, these are ways to connect with oneself and nature.

Both D’Amato and Dr. Pierson urged students suffering from SAD to take advantage of the resources here on campus, especially the Student Health and Wellness Center. “Our counseling center is excellent,” Dr. Pierson said. “Students can walk in, make an appointment, and find particular approaches that may be helpful to them during the season.” Counseling can also help not only when someone is going through a tough time, but also learning more about themselves or “enhance their lives in various ways.” D’Amato encouraged students to come to the SHWC for Seasonal Affective Disorder, as “both the medical and clinical side can help address it.” 

Seeking help, whether it be with counseling, light therapy, diet changes, or exercise, can help one cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Being sure to talk to friends or family or ask for help can also benefit students. Finally, recognizing the times of the year where one is feeling the onset of SAD and preparing for it can lead to a better winter. If one is suffering from SAD, it is essential to remember that it is seasonal and that it will get better as the seasons change. 

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the 24 hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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