Seasonal Affective Disorder and Postgrad Studies

It's good to jump up and down to New Order songs occasionally, which is why the name given to what is supposedly the most depressing day of the year, 'Blue Monday', makes that day slightly less depressing. While the formula used to calculate the particular date of Blue Monday is obviously tongue-in-cheek, the idea that these dark winter days can bring one's mood down is rooted in fact. Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD – which came first, the name or the acronym?) affects one in five of us annually, making us feel grumpy, irritable and lacklustre. For two per cent of people it can be seriously debilitating, requiring treatment to enable them to function. Postgraduate students usually have a lot on their plates at the best of times, and SAD can really get in the way if not looked after properly. Here's a guide to symptoms, and some practical advice on how to tackle them.

Recognising SAD As it's a form of depression, the symptoms of SAD are very similar. What distinguishes it as SAD is that it occurs at roughly the same time each year, meaning that to make an accurate diagnosis requires three or more years' recurring symptoms, which can include:

  • Lack of energy
  • Low mood
  • Increased negativity
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Apathy
  • Sleeping problems, i.e. sleeping too little or too much
  • Irritability
  • Increased difficulty dealing with stress
  • Problems with concentration and reduced ability or desire to study
  • Craving for carbohydrates – not to be confused with the more general hankering for a good chip butty that we all experience every now and then.

A combination of some or all of these symptoms, experienced for three or more consecutive years, means you are probably affected by SAD to some degree.

What causes SAD?

This is an area of uncertainty. The smart money is on a malfunction of the hypothalumus - a part of the brain responsible for producing the hormones melatonin and serotonin, alongside performing other vital duties - due to a lack of exposure to sunlight during the short, cold winter days. An excess or lack of those hormones has an adverse effect on mood, appetite and sleep. However, some people experience SAD in the summer, so it's impossible to pinpoint a cause with any certainty.

Coping with SAD The first thing to know is that having SAD is nothing to be ashamed of, so don't feel you have to soldier on with it alone. Remember, it affects one in five people, which at the last count is about 13 million people in the UK, so you're in good copmpany. Our advice page on student well-being has some useful ports of call if you're experiencing problems.

Light therapy is a proven treatment for SAD, and involves allowing bright light from a special light box to enter the eyes for 30-60 minutes a day during the winter months. It can really help people fight off the effects of SAD, and it's possible to read or work during treatment, so those 30-60 minutes can be used for study if time is short. Before starting light therapy, you should talk to your GP, and choose a light box that is suitable for treating SAD. Unfortunately they are not available on the NHS, but the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association will be able to advise you on a suitable light box and supplier.

Your GP might also suggest other treatments, such as anti-depressants or talking therapy.

If SAD is affecting your studies, have a look at our tips on dealing with stress .

Useful Links Dealing with dyslexia as a postgrad
Is being a postgrad student healthy for your brain?

Postgrad study, imposter syndrome and you
Exam stress: how not to deal with it

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