Cabin fever and winter blues are common ailments during the harsh winter months. But for some, the blues are more than just the added stress of the holiday rush–they’re caused by seasonal affective disorder.
Steve Bentley, who works at CU’s Wardenburg Health Center, said SAD is not uncommon among students. SAD is triggered when the light dwindles and the days get shorter and darker more quickly.
Symptoms of SAD include depression, lack of energy and an increased need for sleep. SAD is more likely to affect women rather than men, and occurs usually in 20-year-olds.
Dr. Kathy Young from the University of Seattle said SAD affects students in Washington as well. Young described the effects of SAD on students as “global,” or in more than one area of life. This type of depression can affect the sleep pattern of students, which makes attending class more difficult.
Although a student may suffer from all or any combination of SAD symptoms, a diagnosis of SAD looks at recurring patterns that seem to disappear come summertime.
“When the symptoms repeat, then we look at cycling and the correlation with seasons,” Bentley said.
Students who suffer from SAD find winters especially difficult because of the holidays and the semester’s end. This added stress causes depression to worsen.
However, a change in mood during winter can be common and doesn’t always mean a patient suffers from SAD. Students who are feeling stressed in the winter without a history of depression could just be having a tough time balancing school and their social lives.
“SAD almost never occurs in isolation,” said Bentley, meaning that students who are diagnosed with SAD usually have a history of depression.
Climate change for students who aren’t accustomed to harsh winter weather that may also trigger SAD.
“Students from more moderate climates,” like California and Arizona, “may be more vulnerable to SAD,” Bentley said.
Climate is an indicator in the severity of SAD. Although Colorado stays sunny throughout most of the winter, when the days get shorter and darker earlier, the SAD cycle may start up again.
However, there are ways to treat the symptoms of SAD. Students with SAD don’t need to spend their winters inside with all the lights on, or in a tanning bed to trick themselves into thinking it’s summer. Light therapy, a common and effective treatment, is offered on campus. Students can also receive light therapy from the Mental Health of Boulder County clinic.
Light therapy requires the patient to come in and be exposed to light that’s classified as “at least 10 times the intensity of ordinary domestic lighting,” said the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association Web site.
While undergoing light therapy, patients can perform normal daily activities such as reading, writing and knitting.
Young said the University of Seattle has a light box available in a group room where students have daily and easy access. Usually, exposure time is about 15 minutes.
Young also said she has advised some patients to purchase their own light boxes to have at home.
“Some staff members have them (light boxes) in their office,” she said.