(This is a guest post from Yixi Dong, winner of an MPOWER Nursing Scholarship and a passionate advocate for mental health services for international students. Yixi is currently a nursing student at Shenandoah University, studying to be a psychiatric nurse practitioner. She has her own YouTube channel dedicated to addressing mental health issues.)
Have you experienced a change in your mood during the dark and cold winter? Do you feel “down in the dumps” or more tired than usual?
You’re not alone: 14% of Americans experience the “winter blues” and it affects international students in the U.S. and Canada, too. For some people, the condition can become the more serious Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which interferes with the ability to accomplish daily tasks.
Read on for some tips to assist you in identifying signs and symptoms, treatments, and ways to manage winter blues and SAD.
How Do I Know if I Have the Winter Blues or SAD?
People who undergo mood changes during the winter may have the winter blues. Symptoms include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Feeling less social
- Difficulty taking initiatives
- Feeling sad and tired
However, people who have winter blues are still able to enjoy their lives, and it does not affect their daily routines, studies, or work.
SAD is more serious. The American Psychiatric Association notes that the following may be symptoms of SAD if they persist for two weeks or more:
- Feeling of sadness or depressed mood
- Marked loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
- Changes in appetite; usually eating more, craving carbohydrates
- Change in sleep; usually sleeping too much
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue despite increased sleep hours
- Increase in restless activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Trouble concentrating or making decisions
- Thoughts of death or suicide or attempts at suicide
What Causes the Winter Blues and SAD?
The human body, and our moods, can be strongly affected by the sunlight exposure. In the winter, shorter days and less time outside in the frigid weather results in:
- Decreased production of serotonin, which has been linked with depression.
- Increased production of melatonin, which makes people sleepy and lethargic.
Changes in the amount of exposure to sunlight can also interrupt your circadian rhythm, which is the biologic clock inside of the human body that regulates your patterns of sleep.
Who Is at High Risk for the Winter Blues and SAD?
Certain groups are at elevated risk for the winter blues and SAD. Women are more likely to have winter blues and SAD than men, and young adults (18 – 30 year-old) are more likely to experience it than older adults.
Because winter blues and SAD are caused by reduced exposure to sunlight, geography plays an important role in determining risk. Those living at higher latitudes, where winter days are shortest, are most at risk, which means that those living in the northernmost parts of the U.S. and those in Canada are at greatest risk.
How Can I Manage My Winter Blues?
If you are suffering from the winter blues, you should try to:
- Exercise regularly
- Go to sleep and wake up on a regular schedule
- Make regular plans with friends and family, since being social can improve your mood
- Take time for yourself to engage in enjoyable activities
How is SAD Treated?
Treatments for SAD can include:
- Light therapy, which involves sitting in front of bright lightboxes that mimic natural light but filter out the harmful ultraviolet (UV) light. People who have this treatment typically see improvement within one to two weeks.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) counseling, also known as “talk therapy,” which is shown to be effective to treat SAD.
- Medications, such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), which are antidepressants often used to treat SAD.
The Bottom Line: You’re Not Alone, and Treatment is Available
Remember, you should not blame yourself for experiencing the winter blues or SAD. It is a common disorder in winter in northern climates, and these changes are often beyond your control.
That said, if you think you have symptoms, there are several things you can do to reduce your symptoms. If you are only experiencing the winter blues, you might try some of the self-help tips in this post. If you think you are experiencing SAD, you should probably talk to a mental health professional. Your university’s counseling office is a great place to start.