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Seasonal Affective Disorder in College Students

by Ashley Miller, studioD

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a relatively common mood disorder that can affect college students, particularly during the winter months. Although the disorder can affect anyone, a study published in the 1998 issue of the "Journal of American College Health" noted that students from southern latitudes who moved to attend college in northern areas were most likely to develop SAD. Regardless of your situation, you don't have to suffer needlessly. Taking some proactive measures may reduce your symptoms and help you feel better.


The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder often mimic those of clinical depression. However, symptoms of SAD tend to occur mainly during the fall and winter months, due to a diminished exposure to natural light. You might experience one or more symptoms and your symptoms might change over time. Some of the common symptoms of SAD in college students include poor academic performance, feeling stressed, avoiding socialization with your friends, wanting to stay in bed, skipping class due to low motivation or fatigue, feeling irritable for no apparent reason or an increased desire to eat comfort foods, especially those high in carbohydrates. You might also experience a decreased sex drive and minor body aches and pains, according to the Counseling Center at Cornell College.

Risk Factors

It's no guarantee that you'll develop SAD if you attend school in a northern area, but it can increase your risk. Female students also have a higher risk of developing the disorder than males, according to the study in the "Journal of American College Health." Additional risk factors for college students that might contribute to or exacerbate your symptoms include feeling homesick, social challenges like making new friends or adjusting to a new roommate, financial concerns like paying for books or tuition, taking on too many extracurricular activities or worries about the future, such as career choices and finding employment.

Self-Help Strategies

Clinical treatment isn't usually needed to treat SAD. Practicing some self-help strategies may result in a significant reduction of your symptoms. Increasing your amount of physical exercise is one suggestion from the Health Center at Bates College. Physical activity helps raise your serotonin levels and alleviates stress. Avoid staying in bed and don't skip classes, as staying on top of your studies and interacting with other students might help you feel better. In addition, fresh air and increasing your exposure to natural sunlight can also help. Try waking up earlier and getting outdoors while the sun is shining. Making positive changes to your dorm room, such as getting a plant or hanging brightly colored posters, can also improve the way you feel.

Clinical Treatment

If self-help strategies don't improve the way you're feeling, you can consult a mental health professional at your campus counseling center. A licensed counselor, social worker or psychiatrist can give you an accurate diagnosis and discuss treatment strategies, such as light therapy, medication or psychotherapy. Light therapy uses a special box that emits bright light similar to the spectrum of sunlight. Some students benefit from antidepressants, especially if they are unable to function or experience very severe symptoms, while many benefit from non-drug interventions, such as psychotherapy. Most colleges offer free psychotherapy sessions to students, usually on a time-limited basis.

About the Author

Ashley Miller is a licensed social worker, psychotherapist, certified Reiki practitioner, yoga enthusiast and aromatherapist. She has also worked as an employee assistance program counselor and a substance-abuse professional. Miller holds a Master of Social Work and has extensive training in mental health diagnosis, as well as child and adolescent psychotherapy. She also has a bachelor's degree in music.

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