Fighting Seasonal Affective Disorder

By Ashley Grundmayer, M.A., licensed independent mental health practitioner and provisionally licensed alcohol and drug counselor with Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)

It’s common to feel a little down in the dumps during the cold and dark winter months. However, if the change of seasons has suddenly caused you to have low mood, decreased energy, irritability or excessive sleepiness, it could be a sign that the “winter blues” or “cabin fever” has developed into Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

What is SAD?

SAD is a depressive disorder often triggered during the change of seasons. Most people with SAD experience an onset of symptoms in the fall that continues into the winter months, but it can appear during any change of season.

SAD affects people from all walks of life, but young adults, women and those with a family history of depression or SAD are more likely to experience the disorder.

What are the symptoms?

The National Institute of Mental Health reports people with SAD often experience symptoms of major depression, such as:

  • Feeling depressed during most of the day, nearly every day
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed.

Additionally, people with SAD may struggle with hypersomnia, overeating, decreased energy and an urge to “hibernate,” which could involve avoiding academic responsibilities and withdrawing from social opportunities.

What causes it?

The cause of SAD is unknown, but some medical and mental health experts suspect that a disruption of melatonin levels, serotonin levels and a person’s biological clock may be the primary culprit. As college students, any SAD symptoms caused by these changes in the body can be exacerbated by an increased workload and struggles with time management. This is why it’s especially important to keep an eye out for SAD symptoms, not only personally, but also in the lives of your friends, classmates and significant others.

What should I do if I think I have SAD?

The first step is to recognize the problem. If you are struggling with mild SAD symptoms, there are several coping strategies you can try:

  • Light therapy: Add another lamp or two to your dorm room. Consider purchasing a fixture designed specifically to emit light levels that have been found to be therapeutic. Weather-permitting, try to spend at least a few minutes outdoors in the sunlight each day.
  • Exercise: Whether it’s going to a group fitness class at the Campus Rec Center, lifting weights in your living area, taking a few laps around the interior of the Union or heading outdoors for a hike, find an activity that interests you and try to incorporate it into your daily winter routine.
  • Socialize: Combat the desire to isolate by making plans with friends, roommates or family. If you don’t have someone to spend time with, attend an on-campus activity, join a free CAPS support group, attend a Student Involvement Coffee Talks session or participate in some similar activity to meet new people.
  • Improve your sleep: As tempting as it may be, avoid oversleeping. Create a sleep schedule and try to stick to it every day. Limit caffeine consumption. Create a healthier sleep environment by not using electronic devices in bed. Stop by the Health Promotion & Outreach office in the lower level of the University Health Center to pick up a free sleep kit to help you get a better night’s rest.

If you are experiencing severe SAD symptoms, make an appointment with a therapist. Our Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) staff is here for you. Bonus: If you pay student fees, your first four therapy sessions per academic lifetime are no extra cost (Some restrictions apply).

For more information about CAPS, visit health.unl.edu/caps.

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