It seems to be a fairly common experience: as the days get shorter and darker, some may notice their mood is a little bit down. However, sometimes these feelings can be much more than a case of the blues. Even in a relatively sunny and warm climate like San Luis Obispo, winter-onset seasonal affective disorder (SAD), can be seen in as many as 10 to 20 percent of adults, according to the Cal Poly Health Center.
While SAD can also happen during the summertime, Americans most commonly experience SAD in the winter. For college students in California, when the daylight hours decrease and time spent inside studying gets longer, students can start to notice the impacts of this relatively common disorder. Common symptoms are often similar to those of major depressive disorder — what most people think of as depression — but appear primarily in the winter months.
SAD during the winter time can be especially difficult, since the onset of symptoms tends to coincide with the holiday season, beginning around November. Holidays come with expectations of social interaction, as well as a general expectation of good moods and high energy. This means that legitimate symptoms are often mistaken for “laziness” or being anti-social, which can be frustrating for both those with SAD and their family members.
People suffering from SAD may experience: loss of energy or the tendency to oversleep; weight gain; feelings of sadness, hopelessness or guilt; irritability anxiety; suicidal thoughts or a loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities.
As with all mental health conditions, people often have difficulty determining whether what they are experiencing is cause for concern, or if it falls within the realm of normal mood fluctuations. However, mental health professionals use a general rule of thumb when it comes to these issues: if a symptom is consistently affecting your daily activities or the choices you’re making, then you should consider speaking to a professional.
Research shows that SAD tends to first appear in young adulthood, around age 20. Reports indicate that symptoms tend to reappear with each subsequent year, sometimes worsening as time goes on. Regardless of the severity, finding a method of treatment for each individual is essential to manage symptoms.
Some people with milder forms of SAD notice improvement in mood stability and symptoms by making a point of spending more time outside, or incorporating exercise into their daily routines. Some studies show links between low levels of vitamin D and SAD.
Regardless of the cause, seeking help from a trained mental health professional can be crucial to managing symptoms and helping maintain quality of life. Professionals can help determine what combination of behavioral therapy, medication or light therapy is right for you.
Light therapy is a practice unique to the treatment of SAD. It involves light-boxes, which are used each day in the season a person experiences SAD. The light from these boxes, which mimics real sunlight, helps the body’s natural circadian rhythms to improve sleep quality and overall mood while relieving symptoms.Therapy-style lights are available online through retailers like Amazon.
If you’ve noticed any of the symptoms associated with seasonal affective disorder this winter, don’t hesitate to reach out. You can talk with your primary doctor or the Cal Poly Health Center on campus. Call 805-756-1211 to make appointments with trained staff at the Health Center.