As we settle into winter, many of us feel more tired. Moodier. Sicker. Hungrier. Maybe it’s because we’re halfway through the school year, and teachers are piling on work. Perhaps it’s the usual winter increase in colds, cases of flu–and COVID-19–that’s making us feel so ill.
But there’s another possibility: SAD. No, not your feelings, although that is one of the symptoms. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, SAD stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder, a condition that hits about 10 million Americans every year in the winter.
The disorder is caused by an off-balance in your circadian rhythms. A disturbance in the force, if you will. A circadian rhythm is a cycle in your body that resets every 24 hours and tells you when to sleep and eat, among other things. These rhythms change with the seasons and are affected by sunlight. So in the winter, when there are as little as nine and a half hours of sunlight every day and your body is making more of the hormones that tell you to sleep and less of the ones that make you feel happy, it throws off your circadian rhythm. That’s why you want to beat your alarm clock to death every morning.
How can you fix it, then?
First, seek professional help if you need it. Wilde Lake has free psychologists in its Wellness Center, which you can access through the nurse’s office on the first floor. Additionally, if you have access to them, your primary care physician or therapist will also be able to identify what exactly your problem is, and they can offer you solutions best suited for you.
There are other ways to self-treat SAD, starting with getting more sleep.
Getting more sleep may seem impossible because of pressures from schoolwork, jobs, and other activities. But according to the CDC, a short 15-20 minute nap during the day can make you feel more refreshed. Just don’t schedule those naps for math class.
And don’t forget, not getting enough sleep can affect your performance in school, as well as other parts of your life. According to a study published by the National Library of Medicine, your body and mind stop working well after about 16 hours of being awake.
The CDC says that not getting enough sleep (nine hours a night for teenagers) causes memory, learning, mood, and more problems. There’s no point in staying up late studying (or gaming) if you won’t be able to focus in class the next day. Make the right choice for yourself and sleep.
If getting more sleep is something you just can’t do, at least make sure to get more nutrients, especially vitamin D, since you’re getting less of it from the sun. You can get your recommended daily dose of vitamin D in foods like eggs, oranges, and cheese. You’ll probably want to eat a lot of sugar, but the energy you get from sugar will make you crash after a few hours. Instead, look for foods with protein and fiber-like peanut butter or bananas.
At the very least, switch out the chips and energy drink you’re having for “lunch” with a granola bar and water. And instead of skipping breakfast, instant oatmeal is a cheap and convenient alternative.
Alternatively, you can expose yourself to more light. Try to get as much sunlight as possible, especially in the morning when you first wake up. That means going outside, not just standing in front of a window and waiting for the Vitamin D Fairy to come to you. Of course, this isn’t easy when school starts before dawn, but take it where you can find it.
One solution is as close as the screen you’re reading this on. As I’m sure we’ve all heard from our parents at one point, “It’s your phone making you feel that way!” And they might be onto something. As many studies have shown, putting down screens is beneficial for energy, cognitive capacity, and even self-esteem, according to a New York Times article. Give your mind and eyes a break this season and unplug a little every day.
Lastly, you can exercise. Exercising in the morning or late afternoon can make you feel more energized during the day and help you sleep better at night, according to a study from the University of Georgia. You don’t have to start doing two-hour cardio sessions or lifting weights from day one. You can start with a short walk every morning or a 15-minute yoga practice in the afternoon and slowly work your way up to more.
All in all, there are many aspects to the fatigue that may be felt in winter. There may be more stressors, like holidays or schoolwork. But if you find yourself acting more like a wild lion (i.e., sleeping 20 hours a day, feeling urges to eat people) than usual in the winter, it might be time to recognize that there is a deeper problem and take the proper steps to treat your symptoms.
Remember that you are not alone. There is help if you need it. You deserve to be healthy.
National Suicide Hotline: 800-273-8255 OR text HELLO to 741741
Maryland Youth Crisis Hotline: 800-422-0009