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  • Kadee Pham-Nguyen

Seasonal Affective Disorder

How can the weather directly affect mental health?

Winter is usually a wonderful season filled with holidays, celebrations, traveling, and time spent with family and friends. However, as the days get shorter and the weather gets colder, many experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or the winter blues. According to UCLA Health, symptoms tend to start towards the end of fall and beginning of winter, and go away during the spring or summer. Signs and symptoms include experiencing changes in sleep and diet, losing interest in activities once enjoyed, having low energy, and having difficulty concentrating. Specifically for the winter blues, additional symptoms include oversleeping, overeating, and social withdrawal. While spending time with loved ones and going outside for fresh air and fun activities do play a significant role in alleviating the winter blues, the COVID-19 social restrictions and lockdowns that are currently enforced are making the wintertime an even more difficult season. Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to help ease symptoms and find joy and relaxation this winter.

The most prevalent and studied method to combat the winter blues is light therapy. A study conducted in North America found a positive correlation between the prevalence of SAD and the location of individuals who live further north, who experience shorter and darker days. In the human body, the rate of serotonin turnover is the highest during the winter, and the rate of serotonin production increases with luminosity. Health professionals advise using a 10,000-lux of full spectrum or cool white fluorescent lights set behind an ultraviolet shield for 30 minutes to 2 hours a day, and typically for two to four week. However, light therapy has not proved to be effective for all SAD patients.A study in light therapy concluded that 53.3% of individuals with SAD met criteria for full remission with light therapy, but only 43% of individuals with moderate to severe SAD symptoms remitted with light therapy. Thus, it is important to do proper research and talk to a healthcare professional before starting this treatment. More convenient alternatives include going on short walks outside (within CDC guidelines) or letting natural light into the house. Although it is difficult to manage time to go outdoors during the school year, opening a curtain and studying close to a window is a great way to practice light therapy.

Additionally, maintaining a steady sleep schedule and sense of routine is beneficial for SAD. For those who struggle with sleep, melatonin supplements and natural scents like lavender help. Writing down a schedule and daily tasks is a great way to declutter the mind and have an organized space. When encountering difficult or time-consuming tasks that seem daunting, breaking them into smaller ones help you achieve goals without feeling drained. Taking breaks in between and rewarding yourself also keeps the pressure low and promotes motivation.

Most importantly, although taking care of one’s physical health is very important to stay healthy during the winter, mental health is equally crucial. Meditation and yoga have been proven to improve symptoms and boost mental health. Apps such as Headspace and Calm are accessible ways to take a break from one’s busy life and check in with oneself, even if it’s just 10 minutes per day. If you feel comfortable, reach out to loved ones, in person or virtually, and connect. And most importantly, be patient and focus on the positives. Mental health is a journey, and the victories we experience, big or small, are all important!

For additional resources, call the Disaster Distress Helpline at 800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 or 24/7 support.