Winter Blues / Seasonal Affective Disorder

EWU Counseling Tips

January 18, 2022

With the increased darkness of winter, about 25% of Washington residents start to experience the “winter blues,” and about 10% experience what is commonly referred to as SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder, a seasonal form of depression.

While the “winter blues” are milder and tend to clear up on their own after a short amount of time, the symptoms of SAD are much like the symptoms of major depression. The term SAD was first coined in 1984 by Norman Rosenthal and his colleagues and has since been the source of considerable research. It is a well-defined clinical diagnosis and can be quite serious if left untreated.

Causes and Symptoms of SAD

There is much we don’t understand about the cause of SAD, however, most theories propose a relationship between the lack of sunlight during winter months and its effect on our body’s chemistry. One theorized cause is a disruption to our circadian rhythm (the biological clock that keeps track of the normal cycle of light and darkness and influences when we feel active or sleepy). Another proposed cause is the increased secretion of melatonin (a sleep regulating hormone) due to darkness, which increases lethargy. Other theorized causes focus on decreases in the production of serotonin (a neurotransmitter involved in mood), and lower levels of vitamin D.

Symptoms and Risk Factors of SAD

How might a parent or primary caregiver know if their college student is struggling with SAD? Symptoms to watch out for include:

  • Low energy, fatigue, or sluggishness
  • Insomnia or an increased need for sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of worthlessness and/or hopelessness
  • Changes in weight, appetite, or increased cravings for carbohydrates (sugary, comfort foods)
  • Loss of interest in activities that are normally enjoyable
  • Daily sadness, irritability
  • Social withdrawal
  • Thoughts of suicide

Certain risk factors may also increase susceptibility to SAD. It is more common among females, young adults, and those who have a prior history of depression or bipolar disorder, a family history of SAD, and live in northern latitudes.

How to Help

College students can be particularly vulnerable to SAD. Transitioning to college marks an important milestone on the path to adulthood. As the structure of home and accountability is left behind college students must tackle their newfound freedom and all the responsibilities that come with it. This can be quite stressful, and organization and time management become important skills to hone. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for college students to fall prey to the temptation to stay up late, whether as a means of catching up on schoolwork, to meet social demands or simply because they now have the freedom to do so. Rosenthal proposes that deprivation of sleep and the absence of early morning light can disrupt our natural circadian rhythm. Lack of sleep is also known to worsen the symptoms of depression in general and can therefore increase the likelihood of SAD. One way you, as a parent or primary caregiver, might help your college student is to encourage them to create or maintain a regular sleep schedule. This can be done by having a set cutoff time for studying in the evening. It can also be tremendously helpful to practice good sleep hygiene by setting a routine before bedtime, putting aside electronics an hour or two before sleep, and maintaining a cool and dark sleep environment. Students unaccustomed to living with a roommate in close quarters, might benefit from help in finding ways to communicate or work through possible conflicts related to their living and sleeping environment.

Rosenthal postulates that students, who are already vulnerable to the effects of SAD, can run into trouble with the increased academic expectations and demands of college. When they start to experience difficulties and are unable to keep up academically, their mood and performance can enter a vicious downward spiral with feelings of shame rendering them less apt to reach out for help. If you notice that your college student is becoming more withdrawn, check in with them. You know them better than anyone else. Students are attempting to become more independent and need the space to do so, yet they continue to need the support and encouragement of parents and caregivers. There are many helpful resources on campus ready to lend support and guidance.

Given that SAD is thought to stem from lack of sunlight, a common first treatment approach is to prescribe the use of light therapy or phototherapy. Many refer to these fixtures as “light boxes” or “SAD lights;” aka “happy lights.” Rosenthal advises using light therapy as soon as the first symptoms of SAD appear, before they can fully take hold. He notes that the effects of a light box can be felt within two to four days for most and highlights the importance of consistent use over a period of at least several weeks. Light therapy is not suitable for everyone and can have negative side effects, including headaches, insomnia, or dry eyes, and can interact negatively with certain medications. People with bipolar disorder may be more susceptible to mania because of light therapy exposure and should consult their medical professional prior to use. Light boxes and information about how to best use them are available to students for check out from both the JFK Memorial library and Counseling and Wellness Services (CWS) on campus.

Dawn simulators provide a different form of light therapy. They are set to gradually fill your bedroom with light, much like the sun naturally does, alerting your body to wake up even though it remains dark outside. They are thought to reset the body’s internal clock.

A natural alternative to the use of light therapy is to seek out natural light, especially in the early morning. This can be done by going outside for a walk or working out in a brightly lit gym. It’s equally important to open window shades and turn on lights in the morning.

Exercise is known to help ease symptoms of general depression and can be a vital tool in helping alleviate SAD, not to mention its overall health benefits. The greatest success of any exercise program relies on one’s ability to stick to it. Encourage your college student to get involved in an activity they enjoy. Research has shown that about 30 minutes of exercise three to five times a week can significantly reduce depressive symptoms. Even 10 to 15 minutes can make a difference and the more rigorous the exercise the less time is needed. There are many options on campus, including the gym, aquatics center, sport clubs and intramural teams, outdoor activities with EPIC, or simply a brisk daily walk around EWU’s beautiful campus. Why not couple exercise with exposure to natural light in the early morning before classes?

The dark and cold of winter has a way of beckoning us to stay indoors and get warm and cozy. It is even more tempting to isolate and withdraw from the world when depressive symptoms knock. It is imperative to fight those urges, stay connected and make efforts to reach out, as these can thwart the symptoms of SAD. Sometimes just talking to someone else can provide tremendous relief and support. Encourage your college student to take advantage of the many support resources available on campus. These include but are not limited to the following:

  • Talk Campus is a FREE peer to peer support app that EWU students can download and talk to other peers like themselves from all over the world. Check it out here: https://inside.ewu.edu/bewell/talkcampus/
  • Wellbeing Coaching is a one-on-one service to students to help with wellbeing goals such as stress management, healthy eating, improving physical activity, sleep, etc. Click here for more information: https://inside.ewu.edu/bewell/wellbeing-coaching/
  • TAO is an online library of interactive programs. It includes educational modules, assessments, practice tools and logs, and a mindfulness library. To learn more, watch this short informational video: https://vimeo.com/249680537. Encourage your student to sign up here using their EWU email account: https://us.taoconnect.org/login

When symptoms have become too severe for your college student to manage on their own, encourage them to seek professional assistance, either with a medical professional or through Counseling and Wellness Services. Call our office to set up an appointment or to get more information. You can also visit our website: www.ewu.edu/bewell. Counseling and Wellness is open 8 a.m.- noon and 1-5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Services offered include:

  • Individual Counseling – a brief intervention model with up to six sessions annually. Offered both in person, virtually, and on the Cheney and Spokane campuses.
  • Walk Ins – for urgent or crisis situations. Available most afternoons from 1-4 p.m.
  • Community Referrals – students can obtain assistance in finding a provider in the community if their counseling needs are longer term.

Counseling & Wellness Services

Counseling Office: 225 Martin Hall
Wellness Office: 201 URC