Jason Wu/Sun Staff Photographer

Inclement weather can amplify the effects of Season Affective Disorder.

February 23, 2022

Down with the ‘Winter Blues’ — What They Are and How to Strike Back

Print More

Although the days are getting longer and the air becoming warmer, the Seasonal Affective Disorder season will continue for several weeks. SAD is a prolonged period of depression tied to seasonal changes, usually spanning the shorter, colder days of winter. 

Although many may have passed the worst of it as we transition back into spring, dark, early mornings and the added stress of exam season can worsen the effects. 

A more common and less severe version of SAD is known as the “winter blues,” which tends to mimic the same symptoms as generalized depression, such as sleeping problems, feelings of apathy and loss of focus or motivation. 

Wiljar Ojuro, a post-master’s resident in Cornell Counseling and Psychological Services, noted that this has been a problem for students here at Cornell in particular. 

“It’s not unusual for people to get the winter blues during long, gray winters like we have in Ithaca,” Ojuro said. “Students from warmer, sunnier climates, including some international students, might be especially susceptible.”

According to Ojuro, SAD and the winter blues is caused by reduced exposure to sunlight, which can affect the hypothalamus region in the brain. The hypothalamus is responsible for producing and releasing hormones into the body, which regulate appetite, sleep and mood. 

Lack of sunlight can cause the hypothalamus to produce more melatonin, sometimes called the “sleep hormone” because of its link to the sleep-wake cycle that regulates tiredness. This increased melatonin causes people with the winter blues to feel sleepier, even in the middle of the day. 

Lack of sunlight can also cause a decrease in serotonin, the hormone linked to mood; less serotonin means that you are more likely to feel depressed or anxious. 

According to Ojuro, the winter blues can affect anyone., SAD is a more severe version. 

“Typically, people who suffer from SAD fall into a depressed mood in the fall and continue to experience symptoms of depression into the spring,” she said. 

According to a report from Cornell Health, up to 25 percent of college students report suffering symptoms of SAD, and it seems to be much more prevalent in women than men by about four times, possibly due to fluctuating levels of estrogen, which appears in higher levels in female people.

Ojuro noted that other factors may also play a role in whether or not certain people experience SAD. 

“Like other mental health problems like depression and anxiety, one’s susceptibility to SAD is usually a result of a combination of biological and environmental factors,” Ojuro said. “It is possible that some people are more vulnerable to SAD as a result of their genes, as some cases appear to run in families.”

Despite that, environmental factors can be regulated. Given that SAD is linked to getting fewer hours of sunlight, experts recommend purchasing a light box, which mimics the effects of sunlight and helps to lessen the symptoms of SAD. Other solutions include increasing the brightness in one’s bedroom.

One important on-campus resource for students suffering with SAD or the winter blues is the Cornell Campus Activities Resource Center in Willard Straight Hall, which provides light boxes for loan on a half-hourly basis. Students can simply go there and sign one out. 

Ojuro said that it is important for people suffering from SAD to not give in to the symptoms. 

“Oversleeping, and having an inconsistent sleep-wake cycle, can cause increased levels of melatonin, which can contribute to feelings of depression,” Ojuro said. 

Ojuro also said that aerobic exercise can help combat the winter blues, as well as stress and depression in general. Even if it is cloudy outside, Ojuro stated that exercise outdoors can be more effective than indoors. 

If all else fails and these solutions do not help, Ojuro said that reaching out to mental health professionals, such as the ones in Cornell Psychological Services, or supportive loved ones is key. For more information, check the Cornell Health website.