Back to School Blues

Written by Alejandro Neufeld

As we enter another fall semester, many students, myself included, will find that as the days get shorter and assignments start to pile up, our moods shift from optimistic to pessimistic. The things that fill us with joy and excitement during the summer cease to do so in the fall, and the bad things in our lives dominate our thoughts. Many of us feel like we are alone in this, but take heart; it is a campus-wide struggle. It even has a name, seasonal depression. Or, if you prefer a more technical term, Seasonal Affective Disorder, abbreviated as SAD. But what exactly is SAD? How can we deal with it and retain the happiness we experienced in the warmer months? In this article, I will attempt to explain SAD and provide some practical strategies to combat it. 

The Mayo Clinic defines SAD as a type of depression related to the change of seasons and begins and ends at relatively the same time each year. The website explains that SAD often manifests from the fall into the winter and usually resolves in the spring and summer months. The symptoms of SAD can include, but are not limited to: 

  • feeling listless
  • losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • having low energy
  • not being able to sleep
  • overeating
  • difficulty concentrating
  • feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness (Mayo Clinic, 2021). 

Well, all of these symptoms sound awful, but what are their root causes? There are three prevailing theories underpinning why SAD happens. First, as a result of the body’s circadian rhythm being thrown for a loop as the days shorten. Second, dropping serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter in the brain that affects mood, is due to reduced sunlight exposure. The final cause for SAD is reduced melatonin levels, which is also due to a lack of sunlight therefore affecting the body’s sleep cycle.

Considering that these root causes are chemical imbalances and changing weather, it is not a stretch to assume that you will encounter SAD in some way. The American Psychiatric Association confirms this on their website. According to Dr. Felix Torres, since 2020, up to five percent of adults in the U.S. have experienced SAD, and its effects linger for up to forty percent of the year (Torres, 2020). We can infer that these numbers will be higher in Canada, where winter is longer and the population is sparser. This is also true, as per the stats provided by the Canadian Red Cross blog. They state that SAD can affect up to ten percent of Canadians, and the group most affected by SAD are young people in their late teens and early twenties (Racine, 2023). That is a majority of us here on campus, so the probability that you or someone you know will develop SAD is high. 

As you can see, SAD is quite serious and must not be brushed off as “back to school blues,” “winter blues,” or just an emotional funk.

Instead, we must approach SAD like any other illness, with an aggressive healing plan and the proper medication if necessary. Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent the onset of SAD, but if you can predict the time of the year that it begins setting in for you, there are some steps you can take to manage SAD when it strikes (Raince, 2023; Mayo Clinic, 2020; Torres, 2020). A popular strategy is to plan outdoor events with friends while the weather permits it; this will allow you to be exposed to sunlight, inhibiting the drop of serotonin and melatonin. If you are more of an indoor person, ask your doctor if you should take vitamin D supplements, as keeping up your vitamin D will also block the drop of the neurotransmitters mentioned above. Sometimes, the best medicine is to confide in someone close to you; this form of talk therapy is cheap and effective. Another form of treatment is light therapy, characterized by letting yourself get flooded with artificial light similar to sunlight. If this interests you, you can go to Amazon and search “light therapy lamps” to find affordable options that may come in handy once the sun starts setting before 5 PM. 

In addition to trying these treatments, I advise trying to enjoy every day by living in the moment. At this time in our lives, many of us are concerned about our futures and where we fit in this ever-changing world. While university functions to prepare us for our careers and to make meaningful connections with fellow students and professors, sometimes it starts to pile up and overwhelm us. Add the fact that we have bills to pay, deadlines to meet, and jobs to go to. Many of us start to neglect our mental health; sooner than later, we find ourselves stuck in a rut of sadness and pessimism. At these times, we must take a step back, breathe, and remind ourselves of all the good things we do have in our lives; this mindfulness will help us to enjoy the little things, whether that might be a wild night out with friends or a laid-back, cozy weekend at home. Activities that make you feel comfortable, relaxed, and refreshed should not be set aside in the rearview mirror during your time at university. As the wise Master Oogway says in Kung Fu Panda (2008), “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift, that is why it is called the present.”

If you are experiencing any type of emotional or psychological distress, please reach out to friends, family, and utilize the supports provided on campus: 

Works Cited

Mayo Clinic. “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – Symptoms and Causes.” Mayo Clinic, 14 Dec. 2021, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651 .

Kung Fu Panda. Directed by John Stevenson and Mark Osbourne, Paramount Pictures, 8 July 2008.

Racine, Vanessa. “5 Tips to Fight Seasonal Depression.” Red Cross Canada, www.redcross.ca/blog/2020/11/5-tips-to-fight-seasonal-depression#:~:text=Seasonal%20depression%20is%20more%20common. Accessed 26 Sept. 2023.‌

Torres, Felix. “Seasonal Affective Disorder.” Psychiatry.org, American Psychiatric Association, Oct. 2020, www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/seasonal-affective-disorder#:~:text=Common%20symptoms%20of%20SAD%20include,or%20having%20a%20depressed%20mood. Accessed 26 Sept. 2023.‌

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