More than the winter blues: The hidden disorder affecting 1 in 3 people

Image Source: Getty Images

By Meika Bottrill | @meikabottrill 

Most people will tell you winter is their least favourite season because of the colder weather, lack of sun, and almost constant rain.

But there might be a more serious reason behind peoples’ dislike for the season.

It’s that time of the semester when assignments begin piling up and we find ourselves developing unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as caffeine dependency, sugar loading, and serious lack of sleep, to keep up with the heavy workload.

This ever-increasing pressure can lead us to under prioritise or ignore our mental and physical health.

However, there’s something else that could be happening that might result in a lapse in our mental health.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as a type of depression that affects 2.4% of the general population.

Like a wild animal that hibernates to conserve energy in colder months, SAD relies on a seasonal pattern, allowing you to feel fine in the warmer months but isolated in the winter.

Other symptoms include a lack of energy, feelings of hopelessness, and changes in sleeping or eating patterns.

Beyond Blue found that seasonal affective disorder can have a detrimental impact on the human body, as sunlight plays a major role in affecting our hormones, and having less of it may result in less serotonin: a chemical in our bodies that affects our mood, sleep, and appetite.

This change in environment can mean that it becomes suddenly harder for people to get out of bed and more difficult to concentrate than usual.

Rachel*, a student from the University of South Australia, studies at the Magill campus twice a week, and describes her commute to university in winter as difficult and draining.

“I wake up feeling lethargic and gloomy, and dread the idea of going to sit in a two-hour tutorial,” she said.

Rachel has recently recognised that her symptoms align with those of seasonal affective disorder.

“It was sort of like a lightbulb going off in my head. I started reading more and more, and began to realise that this made sense,” she said.

“I was always exhausted and was having major difficulties with my sleep, which made concentrating in class impossible.”

Elena Giacomini, UniSA’s Magill Campus Student Service Adviser, encourages students suffering from a mental illness to seek help.

“We have a bunch of services available to students who are struggling with their mental health,” Ms Giacomini said.

“We have a free counselling service; all students can make appointments with our counsellors [that are] completely confidential.

“They can help you get extensions, as well as inform you of different services in place to help you manage your mental health.

“We also have an out of service crisis line to help you get your mental health back on track.”

If you are in a location that has winter sun, exposing yourself to sunlight for up to an hour can help fight against symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.

However, if winter sun isn’t an option, therapies have been invented, such as light therapy lamps, which mimic sunlight through artificial light, to combat symptoms.

Other ways to benefit your mental health include physical exercise, which can stimulate certain chemicals in your body to improve your mood, and healthy eating.

Prioritising your mental health requires hard work and dedication: something that may be difficult to do at the pointy end of the semester.

However, it is important to remember that your mental health is just as important as your grades, and while SAD can take its toll, there are support services available so no one has to be alone this winter season.

 

*Names of people and places have been changed for privacy reasons

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