My College:
Health & Safety

Is It the "Winter Blues" or Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Amanda Taylor

Share this:

When your college student was home for winter break, the two of you spent many evenings talking about everything from dating to difficult professors to their favorite diner in their college town. It was a joy to have them home!

However, towards the end of break, you noticed something a little off.

They were quieter at family meals, didn't want to see their old friends, and slept a ton — even more than when they first got back and were still exhausted from final exams.

Thinking about it, you remember that you observed the same thing last winter. Then, you chalked it up to the fact that they were still settling in at their new college. The more you mull it over, though, the more you realize this pattern stretches back into their high school years…and that you yourself tend to follow a similar pattern each winter. You're used to it, though, and have learned to cope with the "heaviness" of the season by focusing on the fact that the days are already getting longer and just around the corner you'll be feeling more light-hearted and energetic.

The winter blues are a common phenomenon for as much as 10–20 percent of the United States population. Symptoms vary and will often include sluggishness, cravings for sweets and carbohydrates, weight gain, poor sleep with difficulty waking in the morning, poor concentration and sometimes withdrawal from family and friends.

For about half a million Americans, the winter blues become winter depression, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. SAD symptoms are the same as above but more severe and last longer, sometimes up to five months. Women are more affected than men, but men tend to have more severe symptoms.

The winter blues and SAD — both forms of depression in varying degrees — tend to run in families and usually begin in early adulthood. If you have a close family member with SAD, you may be more susceptible to seasonal depression.

Although there is not one exact cause, here is what experts believe leads to winter blues or SAD:

  • Melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone in the body, affects sleep patterns. When there is a decrease in exposure to natural light, the body produces more melatonin, causing a person to feel sluggish and sleepy.
  • Serotonin, another naturally occurring hormone in our body that helps to regulate mood, sleep and appetite, can be affected by decreased exposure to natural light. Researchers have recently found that serotonin transporter (SERT) proteins increase in people affected with SAD, leading to depressive symptoms.
  • Circadian rhythm, our body's natural internal clock that tells us when to sleep and wake, is also affected by decreased exposure to natural light.

If you or your student is having any of the above symptoms, do not fret. Try these proven ways to beat the blues!

1. Lighten your day

As with any new routine, it's always best to check with your health care provider before beginning. That said, light boxes and light lamps have been scientifically proven to help decrease depressive symptoms associated with winter blues or SAD. Another option, and one you can use in tandem with the light lamp, is a dawn simulator. It is a cheap and easy way to simulate the morning arriving gradually in your room, helping you wake up naturally rather than being abruptly awoken by an alarm while it's still dark outside.

2. Exercise

This is the one of the best ways to boost your serotonin levels and get natural energy (as opposed to several cups of coffee). Regular exercise has been shown to decrease depression and help sleep at any time of the year; boosting exercise routines as winter approaches will benefit anyone who is especially affected by the winter blues. Even just getting outdoors for some fresh air can help alleviate depressive symptoms. The tree-huggers don't have it all wrong!

3. Cook wholesome meals

Maybe cooking isn't your thing, but putting together a meal with complex carbohydrates (think lots of veggies) and lean proteins while leaving out simple sugars and carbs can greatly boost a tired and sad mood and balance serotonin. You will also notice better digestion and less anxiety as you cut out processed foods. As for dessert, there are current studies underway that confirm what we were hoping: a little dark chocolate works on neurotransmitters to help boost mood and alleviate the pain of SAD.

4. Clear the clutter

You might think this should be saved for a "Spring Cleaning" article, but clearing out the old can be quite liberating and give you a sense of accomplishment and spaciousness. Whether it's kicking a bad personal habit or going through your closet or file cabinet, removing clutter decreases stress. Princeton neuroscientists have found that an excess of things can have a negative impact on your focus and ability to process information, so go on and say good-bye to what no longer serves you.

5. Connect with a friend or family member

Talking and processing feelings with someone you trust over tea or taking a hike with a buddy can be extremely therapeutic. Sometimes we think we are the only ones going through a specific life event. You will find that sadness, feeling down in the dumps, poor sleep and so forth are all quite common to the human experience. Whether it's advice you seek or just validation from someone you trust, reaching out is beneficial.

6. Seek treatment

If adverse symptoms don't decrease with your efforts, or if they impact your ability to function normally, it's time to seek the counsel of your doctor or a therapist trained in evidenced-based treatment for SAD. There are both holistic and conventional approaches to help treat the symptoms of winter blues and SAD. You are worth it, and before you know it winter will thaw, your mood will improve and it will be time to celebrate spring and rebirth.

Share this:
Amanda Taylor holds an undergraduate degree in English literature from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a masters degree in social work from the University of Denver. She is a licensed clinical social worker in the state of Colorado with a private practice in Boulder where she works with various populations. Amanda enjoys reading, research, yoga, spending time with her son and daughter, and traveling.
Find Your University
  • Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox every week.

    We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy and terms for more info.

  • Connect

    Don't Miss Out!

    Get engaging stories and helpful information all year long. Join our college parent newsletter!