What college students should know about Seasonal Affective Disorder


I was very pleased when a colleague who heads up the department of psychology at American University in Washington, DC, invited me to talk to his students about seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and the Winter Blues. Having researched the condition, which I described and named back in 1984, and treated hundreds of SAD patients since then, I have become increasingly impressed at the risk it poses to college students.

As most of you probably know by now, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that typically arises during the dark days of the year. What is less well known, however, is that people with SAD generally experience other symptoms before they become depressed.

These include:

• Difficulty waking
• Decreased energy
• Difficulty concentrating
• Increased appetite especially for sweets and starches
• Weight gain
• Anxiety
• Decreased interest in socializing

[Video 3:33] What College Students Need to Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder


As you can imagine, having these symptoms can interfere with functioning both in your personal and professional life. They are enough to make anybody feel depressed, which is what often follows. The Winter Blues is a lesser variant of the condition that interferes with creativity, productivity and the joy of living, but is not disabling.

In a study of schoolchildren in Maryland, my colleagues and I found that by the time the students reached their senior year of high school, 1 in 20 had full-fledged SAD and 2 or 3 times that number had the Winter Blues. Although college students have not been studied systematically, my guess is that they probably suffer in higher numbers.

Here’s why:

1. Disturbed biological rhythms

Most high school students get some help from their parents in regulating their daily (circadian) rhythms. Parents often help their children get going in the morning and encourage them (with more or less success) to get to bed at reasonable hours of the night. With college comes the freedom to stay up late and sleep in the next morning. In doing so, students are deprived of sleep and light – especially the important light of early morning. Their daily (circadian) rhythms shift later (delayed), which compounds the problem.

2. Workload increases over the course of the semester

To some extent increased workload is a function of the syllabus, as many schools ease students into their studies. But as vulnerable students begin to experience fall-winter difficulties, their work piles up and they fall increasingly behind, thereby compounding the problem. Once again, the corrective input that good parents can provide is usually missing. Students often feel ashamed that they are not managing as well as they would like to – or think they ought to – and delay reaching out for help, which only makes the problem harder to reverse when they finally do so.


Advice to students who think you (or a friend) may have SAD or the Winter Blues.

1. Recognize the problem. Remember that the early symptoms often involve changes in energy, sleep, appetite, weight, concentration and engagement with others. These symptoms often occur before feelings of depression.

2. Take SAD seriously. Act sooner rather than later. Get help when needed.

3. Bring more light into your home, which can mean more regular lamps or light fixtures specially designed to deliver light levels found to be therapeutic in research studies. Light therapy is usually most potent in the morning – and the earlier the better.

4. Put your bedside lamp on a timer that turns the light on half an hour before you wake up in the morning – or invest in a dawn simulator.

5. Exercise, preferably combined with light – such as walking outside on a bright winter day or working out indoors in front of a light box.

6. Stay active socially, and schedule activities that you enjoy with friends and family members who cheer you up.

7. If you find that despite all your best efforts, you are falling behind in your work, or that your health is suffering physically or emotionally, seek out professional help. Antidepressants and other strategies can be very helpful. You don’t have to do it all yourself.

Further reading:

For more information on SAD and the Winter Blues check out additional articles by looking through this blog and my book Winter Blues (Guilford 2013)

Social Media:

In order to maximize awareness about SAD in students, please post pictures and information about this on your social media and use the hastag #BeatSAD. My details are below—my team and I will do our best to find your posts and respond.

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/normanrosenthal/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/DoctorNorman
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/doctornorm/

Additional Resources:

11 Tips for Greater Happiness

Seasonal Affective Disorder: Beating the Winter Blues

How to Stop Your Emotions from Controlling You


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