BYU public health experts give tips to combat seasonal affective disorder

Depression rates are on the rise across the U.S., and Utah reports consistently higher self-reported lifetime rates than other U.S. states. (Kenna Colton)

Utah can be a hard place for students to live as daylight savings time hits and as the days get shorter and darker.

Jason W. Hunziker, the division chief of Adult Psychiatry at University of Utah Health, said Utah has an increased rate of seasonal affective disorder, which is theorized to be the result of the lack of sunlight — a result of both the state’s northern latitude and inversion. He also said young people are more susceptible to seasonal affective disorder, and Utah is the state with the youngest average age.

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is present during the colder months and is also known as the “winter blues.” Symptoms of SAD include depression, heightened anxiety, mood changes, sleep problems, fatigue, extreme weight loss or gain, difficulty focusing and social problems.

So what can BYU students do to combat SAD? Public health experts at BYU offered some tips for beating back the winter blues this semester.

Develop healthy habits

Extreme weight fluctuations are quite common in people who experience symptoms of SAD; however, it may not all be attributed to the types of food students consume. Healthy foods are recommended when SAD symptoms surface, but timing eating and sleep schedules appears to be more crucial.

“Mindful eating is known to help those who struggle with emotional eating,” said Lauren Absher, a BYU dietitian specializing in eating disorders and emotional eating. “Students can check in with their mood and check in with their food intake and appetite to assess the reasons they may be turning to food or avoiding food to self-medicate.”

Absher said there is nothing wrong with making food choices that are more convenient when mood is low and energy levels are waning as long as students are getting three consistent meals per day.

“When appetite is low, it’s helpful to make food choices based on what sounds good. Someone who may struggle with emotional overeating can check in with their satisfaction level,” Absher said. “They can brainstorm which convenience items they can find from each food group category. It’s not necessary to avoid any one type of food entirely.”

Absher said SAD can throw off circadian rhythms and cause a lack of appetite during the day. This usually ends in students having a ravenous appetite in the evening, which results in overeating and health complications.

“Many students who struggle with depression or SAD are also at risk of developing an eating disorder, and it’s important to not focus on weight,” Absher said. “Rather, it’s more helpful to focus on behavior change.”

Be active

Exercise can provide endorphins and lift one’s mood when he or she may be down, but being socially active is just as important. Going outside, getting adequate amounts of sunlight and interacting with people are all methods that can lessen SAD symptoms.

“I always think that taking time to get out-of-doors, even when it’s cold and you don’t feel like going outside, helps,” said Ali Crandall, a BYU professor with a PhD in public health. “Students may also find that mood lights, doing meditation and serving others help as well.”

Though it can be difficult to get outside and interact with others in the winter, it is recommended to see what events are happening on campus to give you something to do if you are feeling the winter blues.

Utilize CAPS services on campus

If you or someone you know believes they may be experiencing SAD, BYU CAPS has a staff ready to help students manage symptoms. Resources include free meditation recordings, appointments with therapists, biofeedback analyses and more.

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