Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in Medical Students

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects about 10 million Americans. For medical students and residents already overworked and under-rested, the experience could be even more drastic. Let’s talk about what SAD is and how medical students and professionals can better care for their mental health during the colder and darker months of the year. This is important for maintaining work-life balance and avoiding burnout.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder, also called seasonal depression, is a type of depression that stems from the changes of the season — most notably transitioning into the colder months of the fall and winter. This is largely attributed to the fact that the days are shorter, so we get less sunlight.

While it can vary from person to person, common symptoms of SAD include:

  • Depression.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Difficulty waking up.
  • Decreased energy.
  • Changes in appetite and weight.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • A lack of motivation.

What Can Medical Students Do to Avoid SAD?

While we can’t control the changing of the seasons, there are little daily habits we can adopt to try to ease the cloud that SAD sometimes hangs over our heads. Here are a few suggestions

1. Try Light Therapy

In light therapy, you use a phototherapy box that mimics sunshine to expose yourself to artificial light. This helps better regulate your circadian rhythm. Usually, you need to sit in front of the box for 20 to 30 minutes a day. Doing so alters the chemicals in your brain to give your mood a nice boost.

2. Get as Much Sun as Possible

The reason that sunlight helps us feel better is that it triggers our bodies to produce vitamin D, the “sunshine vitamin.” Vitamin D plays a role in our mental health. If you’re not getting enough, you might not feel all that great.

So, even if it’s cold outside, try to expose yourself to as much sunlight as possible. Bundle up and go for a walk. If you’re working indoors, try to sit near a window and open the blinds.

medical student outside in the winter

3. Avoid Alcohol

Sometimes, when we’re feeling down, we turn to alcohol to chase away the blues. However, even though drinking might give you an initial buzz, it’s actually a depressant. Plus, it can disturb your sleep, which can make your seasonal depression even worse.

We’re not telling you to never indulge. Just be mindful of how much alcohol you consume, and understand that it could make your SAD worse.

4. Move Your Body

When we exercise, our bodies release chemicals like endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. These chemicals improve our sense of wellness while simultaneously reducing chemicals that can make us sad and anxious.

We know that exercise might be the last thing on your mind, with studying, rotations, and your many other responsibilities. But your body and brain will thank you for it!

5. Use a Sunrise Simulation Alarm Clock

These alarm clocks wake you up gradually by slowly increasing their light intensity. It’s like having your own personal sunrise. They’re more gentle and help you acclimate to daylight in a more natural way. You can find these on Amazon.

Importantly, remember that you’re never alone. Millions of people struggle with SAD. It’s always okay to ask for help. If you’re having a hard time, meet with your healthcare provider to explore other options.

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