Winter blues: seasonal affective disorder and how it affects you

Christmas break is right around the corner, and while many students are celebrating the holidays, many others are struggling with wellness. Self-care is important no matter what the weather is, but this time of year is high risk for seasonal behavioral disorders and depressive symptoms. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as summertime sadness or seasonal depression, is a mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depression in the winter.

Symptoms of SAD usually begin in October or November and subside in March or April. Regardless of the time of onset, most don’t feel fully “back to normal” until early May. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, about 10 percent of people in Alaska may be affected.

“When you’re dealing with things like depression, it is a cycle, you feel like crap, you don’t do things, and then your stuff builds up and you feel worse. The best thing to do is push yourself out of that cycle,” said Hayden Tiner, a Theater major. “When you feel like laying in bed all day, don’t. Eat well. We fail to do that as college students. Taking care of yourself, just the essentials. It’s a lot better to actually deal with it than to just cope. Express yourself.”

National statistics show that one in three college aged students suffer from a mental health issue so crippling that students find it difficult to function normally. Because of the widespread nature of mental health issues it’s extremely important to be aware of the symptoms and self care resources.

The U.S. National Institute for Mental Health stated that symptoms of SAD include:

• Sad, anxious or “empty” feelings

• Feelings of guilt, worthlessness or helplessness

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• Irritability, restlessness

• Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy

• Fatigue and decreased energy

• Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions

• Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping

• Changes in weight

• Thoughts of death or suicide

With the sharp decrease in temperature and light during the day, the holidays can start to be a very difficult time for any suffering from a mental health issue. There are many theories as to how seasonal depression happens, but all experts agree that with the right treatment and self-care plans, people can overcome this disorder and fully recover. While treatment plans should be diagnosed and determined by a health care professional, UAA’s Student Health Center and other health care organizations recommend DIY self-care activities that can help alleviate and prevent depressive symptoms.

1. Take vitamin D supplements. With the low levels of light in Alaska, it’s possible that up to 75 percent of Alaskans are vitamin D deficient. Purchase some gel supplements at Walgreens, Carrs or Fred Meyer’s.

2. Develop a wellness and safety prevention plan to identify behaviors and environments that are best for you and your mental health.

3. Take a road trip with some friends or family to get out of the city and see some beautiful Alaskan scenery – studies show that traveling can clear your head and make you appreciate your life more.

4. Spend some time trying to understand yourself – write in a journal, talk to a counselor or a mentor, or listen to music that you identify with.

5. Call your parents or grandparents – they’ll love hearing from you, and getting in touch with loved ones can reaffirm your self-worth.

“I like to look at sunsets, that’s always fun, try to get outside when it’s daylight, even though it can be difficult if you work,” said Sage Klauder, major undeclared. “I like to ride snow machines, sledding and snow boarding…there’s a lot of things to do in the winter, you just have to find things to do. Get an obsession, that always helps. If you find something you really like and follow it really hard.”

Getting outside seems to be the most recommended activity.

“Back in Seward, we went snow machining and skiing, went outdoors for as much of the daylight as possible. I force myself to be around people a lot… I don’t know the last time I was alone, besides driving to school. I benefit a lot of from social interaction and communication; I get a lot of energy from that.” said Tiner.

Even the head physical therapist for the 212th Rescue Squadron, a Search and Rescue squadron on Elmendorf Air Force base, has been advocating for Vitamin D supplements and physical exercise as surefire ways to feel better during the cold winter months. Little Buddha, a national wellness blog published “45 Simple Self-Care Practices” which included some more self-care options.

6. Schedule in five minutes of “play” (non-directed activity) several times throughout your day to help relax

7. Create a deliberate habit – something small in your life by doing it in the same way each day—what you wear on Tuesdays, or picking up the dental floss before you brush. Routines can help provide stability and reliability in your life.

8. Try mini-meditations throughout the day with one minute of awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations; one minute of focused attention on breathing; and one minute of awareness of the body as a whole.

9. Exercise a signature strength – think about what you’re good at, and find an opportunity for it today.

10. Edit any negative people out of your Twitter or Facebook feed. If you don’t want to delete them, you can just mute them.

If these self-care practices still aren’t creating dynamic results, visit UAA’s Student Health and Counseling Center.

Nursing student Rachel Leaman, Peer Health Educator Johanna Richter, and SHCC nurse practitioner Betty Bang said, “Stressful times are normal, and we have help here at the student health center if folks are experiencing anxiety or insomnia… This can be a hard time of year for students with dark days and unfortunate weather, as well as the normal stresses of academics, social pressures, and family and friends conflicts. It’s important to engage in self care and taking time for one’s self. Healthy eating, regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and frequent eating are all big things.”

Students can walk in or call for a screening appointment for help. Enjoy the holidays with more self-care and awareness.

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