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Seasonal Depression in College Students

Morgan Lindstead | February 13, 2023

It’s time we start a conversation about Seasonal Depression on campus. For some, this yearly struggle may already be in full swing. Nonetheless, it is important to understand what seasonal depression is, how it may affect you and your peers, and how you can combat its symptoms. 

What Is Seasonal Depression?

As the name implies, Seasonal Depression, or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is a type of mood disorder characterized by a state of depression that occurs around the same time every year (usually winter). While the exact cause is unknown, the generally accepted theory is that the lack of sunlight during the winter months may impair the hypothalamus. More specifically, the relationship between SAD and daylight is believed to be related to both a brain chemical imbalance and a vitamin D deficiency. A lack of sunlight can cause a boost in the hormone melatonin, which makes us feel more tired and unmotivated. However, SAD can also be part of a larger mental health issue or due to heightened stress and anxiety. 

Various cycles involved in mood regulation are impacted by sunlight, including sleep and night/day cycles. Thus, when we go through abrupt changes in daylight – including those related to daylight savings time or jetlag – we disrupt these natural rhythms, causing them to go out of sync. 

The effects of daylight savings time are real and have a terrifying correlation with factors beyond just mood. When we lose an hour of sleep due to the end of daylight savings every spring, there is an average 24% increase in heart attacks the following day. When we gain an hour of sleep every autumn, there is an average 21% reduction in heart attacks. This trend is also visible in the number of car crashes, road traffic accidents, and suicide rates. Although these trends are unrelated to seasonal depression, they nevertheless show how the mind and body are heavily impacted by factors such as sleep and daylight.

However, while the generalized correlation between seasonal depression and daylight is a convincing hypothesis, a recent study conducted by Dr. Sandra Rosenthal, a Chemistry professor here at Vanderbilt, and colleagues proposes a different hypothesis. Their findings suggest that seasonal mood afferent disorders are affected more by solar radiation than by generalized sunlight. The study focused on solar insulation, the amount of solar radiation that reaches the ground over a specific amount of time in a specific location. Because the brain’s suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is believed to play a key role in measuring the rate of change of solar insulation, Dr. Rosenthal and her team predict a link between the SCN and seasonal depression.

In conclusion, rapid changes in the amount of sunlight or solar insulation may influence mood afferent disorders like bipolar disorder and SAD. Accordingly, both of these possible causes are likely correlated.

How Can You Treat It?

If you think that you may have SAD, there are some easy remedies you can try. The most commonly recommended treatment is to use light therapy through a special type of UV lamp. Benefits from these lamps are commonly noticed after two to four days of treatment. 

Additional treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy, spending more time outside during the lighter hours, and getting vitamin D from a different source, such as pills. Additionally, antidepressants have been shown to sometimes be helpful. All of these treatments are believed to be effective in stabilizing the chemical imbalances encroaching on the hypothalamus and causing the mood instabilities that are characteristic of SAD. 

Vanderbilt students also have the opportunity to reach out to the UCC to get help during these challenging months. You can contact the UCC Crisis Support line by calling 615-322-2571. This line is available for emergencies 24/7, including during academic breaks (if the Center is closed, press option 2). Additional resources for immediate support include dialing 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, texting VANDY to the Crisis Text Line at 741741, or contacting local law enforcement. As part of your Student Health Fee, you also have access to free urgent care, counseling, psychiatry, and nutrition services with ALC. Thus, while it can sometimes be difficult to find times that work in your schedule to meet with the UCC, there are plenty of other resources available to help through this difficult time. 

Is it Preventable?

Yes, SAD is preventable. If you have had SAD in the past, you can prevent or possibly lessen symptoms in the future with the help of the methods described above, and more. Use a lightbox starting at the beginning of fall and throughout the darker months. Go outside often, eat a well-balanced diet, and exercise. Spending more time with friends or pets can also be beneficial. You can also consider taking medications such as antidepressants, but don’t prioritize this potential solution over other, more natural methods. Additionally, limit your use and dependence on alcohol as this is also believed to make symptoms of SAD worse

How does SAD affect college students?

SAD is especially prevalent in students, as you might expect, because of the continuous stream of stress and the difficulty many students face in maintaining a regular sleep schedule. It’s also important to note that staying up late can make symptoms worse and also make it more challenging to treat them using the previously described methods. 

So, what else can you do to prevent and treat SAD as a college student? Try to maintain a regular sleep schedule, especially during these darker months. Go to sleep earlier too, if you can. Make schedules and stick to them. It may be beneficial to create a habit tracker with a reward system for completing all of your weekly tasks, such as going to class, doing homework, going to sleep early, and keeping up with your personal hygiene. 

If symptoms persist after these efforts have been made, reach out to the UCC or consider the other previously mentioned health resources on campus. The primary goal here is to find someone to talk to so that a) you don’t convince yourself that you are making all of this up in your head and b) you create a support system with someone who can ground you when your emotions get the best of you. 

You are not alone in this, and things will get better. 

Works Cited:

Appointments. Vanderbilt University. 2018 Jun 29 [accessed 2023 Feb 11]. 

Jan 30, 2022, Pm 4:52. Rays of Hope: Depressive disorders with seasonal pattern influenced more by location, daily shifts in sunlight than average seasonal changes. Vanderbilt University. [accessed 2023 Feb 11].

PhD JH. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in College Students: More Than the Winter Blues. TimelyMD. 2020 Dec 14 [accessed 2023 Feb 11]. 

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – Symptoms and causes. Mayo Clinic. [accessed 2023 Feb 11]. 

Seasonal Depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder). [accessed 2023 Feb 11]. 

Self-Directed Tools. Vanderbilt University. [accessed 2023 Feb 11]. 

Walker M. Matt Walker: Sleep is your superpower | TED Talk. [accessed 2023 Feb 11]. 

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