As we enter the winter season and the days get progressively colder, we may internalise and reflect this slightly ‘moody’ weather in a way that is not necessarily beneficial for our mental health. Although this may just be seen as the ‘Annual Winter Blues’, once this stretch of sadness grows from weeks to months, it could be a different issue altogether. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) has symptoms similar to Depression, the difference being that it only occurs during certain times of the year, more often than not in the winter each year. According to the NHS, almost 12 million people across Northern Europe experience this, so it is certainly not an uncommon phenomenon. Due to its notoriety, I feel it is important to address it with the recognition it deserves as it can easily be misdiagnosed on a personal level as one “being a bit dramatic” when this mood disorder trickles into all aspects of life.
‘But how do I know if I have Seasonal Affective Disorder?’ is probably a question floating around amongst those who’ve heard mentions of this confusing mental health condition. For clarification purposes, the HSE has outlined numerous symptoms that can be identified in those experiencing this disorder. These include persistent low mood, a loss of interest in previously enjoyable things, low self-esteem, increased anxiousness, irritability, and withdrawal from social activities. Other symptoms such as constant lethargy, difficulty concentrating and increased appetite are also signs of SAD. The distinguishing factor here between SAD and regular depression – as the indicators are similar – is that the individual is usually happy or in a good mood during the spring and summer months, contrasting with the despair felt when the weather changes. It may be hard to pinpoint, but if you notice a regular pattern of going from feeling jolly and having more lust for life to being more dreary as soon as the weather changes, it may be beneficial to look into Seasonal Affective Disorder.
The huge reason that Seasonal Affective Disorder occurs is due to the lack of sunlight during the winter. The Mayo Clinic outlines that although “the specific cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder remains unknown…[a] decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression”. It is because the body needs sunlight for the circadian rhythm (also known as a ‘sleep cycle’) to occur efficiently. For the majority of people, it is easier to wake up when the sun has risen and it is bright outside and fall asleep when it is dark. With the sun rising later each day until the winter solstice, it is still quite dark until around 9am. Adding to this, the weather is already pretty miserable in Ireland at this time of year (as I’m sure you are aware) so once there is even some brightness in the sky, the clouds and rain take it away. This means we not only have less sun, but we are experiencing the same type of weather day in and day out, making the days blur together in some endless loop of grey. As a result, the body is producing more melatonin as the outside indicates it is ‘time for bed’, when in reality it is 7am on a Tuesday. Due to the new abundance of melatonin, the body reacts by becoming more lethargic throughout the day and having the constant urge to rest. Of course, this can be very frustrating with exam season coming up as getting college work done is becoming a main priority, but there are ways to help ease the effects of SAD if implemented regularly.
The biggest piece of professional advice that is given to those suffering at this time of year is to avoid taking naps as much as possible. Seemingly harmless, naps can exemplify the other symptoms of SAD much more and may even be the reason it occurs in the first place. Your body will start to build up a ‘napping schedule’ if naps are taken regularly so that when you come home from work or college, you will be heavily reliant on one. Instead, aim to push through this urge and have a little bit of caffeine to sustain energy levels to ensure your body slowly adjusts to the darkness. A fascinating piece of information that I know some of you will be delighted to hear is that we actually should be getting up to two hours more sleep per night during this season. According to Healthline, “Researchers are reporting that humans need more sleep and more deep sleep in the winter than in other seasons” – so do not feel guilty for a little lie-in if it prevents you from taking that tempting nap in the afternoon!
When it is bright outside, make sure to get out. This doesn’t mean that you have to go for a long walk (although that is good too), but just try to get some sunlight to aid your body’s circadian rhythm and make sure that you are getting some Vitamin D. If you feel you aren’t getting enough sunlight, maybe try adding Vitamin D supplements to your diet to help balance your mood since “nearly 40 per cent of the geo-mapping study population [of Ireland] were either vitamin D deficient or insufficient” (Vitamin D deficiency is prevalence is high in Ireland, The Medical Independent. 2021) and without this vital vitamin, there’s a higher chance of depression and mood swings. Lastly, push yourself to get out of the house and do things that usually bring you joy. Schedule in time to meet a friend, bake Christmas cookies, have a bath, go for coffee in town and browse the shops – it does not matter. What matters is that you put in the effort to feel better where you can, because if you can’t control the weather or the seasons, at least you can be in charge of making the most of this shift and making it a time to self-centre and redirect – just in time for the New Year.
Current SU Welfare Officer, Aoife Bennett, has also kindly shared some thoughts about generally looking after one’s health for the winter months and lead-up to exams. Bennett states: “As the nights get darker and workloads pick up, college can start to feel a bit overwhelming. During this time, it is so important to look after yourself in whatever ways work for you. If you aren’t sure what works for you, chat with others and see what they do for self-care. You might find something that works for you. The biggest tip I can give to anyone who is not feeling their best at the moment is to be kind to yourself and ask for help. Whether it is talking to a friend, family member or a professional, I encourage you to reach out to someone for support. If you aren’t sure who to go to, please drop me an email or pop into House 6 and we can have a chat, I’ll make tea. I will be happy to listen and help you figure out what supports might work for you in College; whether it is Student Counselling or S2S peer support.”
If you feel that you have been experiencing any of these symptoms and perhaps resonate with this article, please reach out to someone. Here are some resources that you can contact if needed:
Student Counselling: [email protected]
Welfare Officer, Aoife Bennett: [email protected]
Nightline: 1800 793 793
Samaritans Helpline (24hr): 116 123
S2S (Student2Student): [email protected]