This year’s polar vortex has left many in a bit of a seasonal slump, but for some these persistent feelings of the “winter blues” may be linked to a deeper disorder.
Students and faculty alike may be experiencing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Janet Billerbeck, University Health Services senior counselor, said it is common for most people to feel changes in mood as winter rolls around.
Billerbeck said UHS has seen a slight increase in the number of students presenting symptoms of SAD due to the especially long and harsh winter this year.
“It is normal to feel like sleeping a little more, to have lower energy or to feel like you want to hibernate,” Billerbeck said. “As long as it doesn’t get in the way of getting your work done, it’s perfectly normal.”
Billerbeck said those affected by winter weather can be categorized into three groups: those with the slight but non-imperative changes in mood or “winter blues,” those with year-round depression who experience worsening symptoms in winter months and those who suffer exclusively from SAD.
SAD is defined as a recurrent form of depression that occurs primarily in winter months.
Symptoms of SAD include a lower mood, feeling down, loss of interest or pleasure in things usually enjoyed, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, weight gain, sleep disturbance and a sense of hopelessness, UW Health Psychologist Shilagh Mirgain said.
“Because of the shortened daylight hours during the fall and winter, our body generates less vitamin D3,” Mirgain said. “Shortened daylight often disrupts our circadian rhythm.”
Mirgain said SAD affects about 4 to 6 percent of the U.S. population and is more prevalent in northern climates. She said it is most commonly found in younger people, who are between 18 and 30, and women are at a greater risk of being affected than men.
Though a concrete diagnosis of SAD requires a recurrence of depression-like symptoms over several years and is less common than most other depressive disorder diagnoses, UHS does see a higher rate of “winter blues” concerns during the winter months, Billerbeck said.
“To assess whether one is experiencing SAD or not we would look at a pattern over at least a few years,” Billerbeck said. “This helps to see that not only is it occurring this winter, but there is a pattern in the past as well.”
Mirgain said if students cannot get out of winter it is best to get into it. She suggests that students work both aerobic and resistance training into the routine at least three times a week. If students exercise outside when the weather allows, the sunlight will leave them with a greater boost in mood and energy, Mirgain said.
Mirgain said social interaction is crucial to maintaining a positive mood, so she encourages students to continue to connect with friends either in person or via social media.
“Whether it be a school project, learning a new skill or planning some things in the next few weeks, the key is having something to look forward to or get excited about,” Mirgain said.
One may also focus on consuming foods rich in vitamin D3 to counter the lack of sun exposure, Mirgain said. She said fish and mushrooms are two great sources of D3. Mirgain said physicians can prescribe D3 supplements with dosages tailored to the individual as well.
Mirgain said a physician can also prescribe light therapy, which includes a special box and full spectrum light bulb that imitate authentic sunlight. Patients can sit in front of this light for about 30 minutes a day to counter the effects of SAD, she said.
“Sometimes people don’t realize they’re experiencing this and all of their energy is going toward improving their mood,” Mirgain said. “If it can be recognized, we can utilize these countless coping strategies.”