At first, Abdul-Matin Khandwala thought he was just tired and burnt out from juggling a full course load, a part-time job and an active social life. However, as the days got shorter and the temperature dropped, he became increasingly aware of how unmotivated, tired and stressed he felt.
“It hits you like a bag of bricks and it’s the worst feeling ever. You start getting these negative thoughts and that’s when you feel like giving up,” Khandwala says.
Khandwala is one of the 15 per cent of Canadians that suffer from the winter blues, triggered by a lack of exposure to natural light.
Those who get the winter blues have normal mental health throughout the year, but develop depressive symptoms in the winter time. Khandwala, a second-year business management student at Ryerson, dismissed his symptoms because they would disappear around summertime. “I didn’t think much of it because I would eventually get my energy and motivation back when the summer came, I just thought it was me being over the semester.”
This disorder is not to be confused with seasonal affective disorder, which is a mental condition more aggressive than the winter blues. This condition mimics symptoms of clinical depression, like feeling tired, anxious and hopeless. Although SAD and the winter blues occur around the same time, only two to three per cent of Canadians are diagnosed with SAD according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Students in their twenties are more likely to develop these symptoms because of the stresses and demands of everyday life. Orest Szczurko is a naturopathic doctor in Mississauga and has conducted research on the winter blues.
“January and February are the most difficult due to the decreases in length and intensity of daylight, which we need.”
He says there is a hormone in the brain that is responsible for the human sleep-wake cycle, which can contribute to feeling lazy, tired and unmotivated. “In order to induce sleep at night, a hormone called melatonin is secreted, which is stimulated by darkness and shuts down during the daytime, but when the days are shorter and darker, the production of this hormone is prevalent in the day, which makes your body think it’s still dark outside.”
Szczurko explains that sunlight, exercise and certain vitamins can be beneficial. “Vitamin D is important,” he said. “So are the B vitamins, particularly B9, B6 and B12 as they help regulate mood and sleep.” He recommends that students eat foods rich in these vitamins and avoid all-nighters.
Jenna Ferguson, a second-year psychology student, says she notices that going to class is more tedious in the winter. “Sometimes I don’t even want to get out of bed,” she said.
Szczurko says there are things students can do that will reduce the risk of getting the winter blues. “Around lunch time take a walk outside to increase your sunlight exposure,” he said. “Get some exercise, and discharge the stress accumulated at work or school.”
Light therapy which uses artificial light to mimic natural light can also be beneficial but for students on a budget an hour-long walk in winter sunlight is just as effective, Szczurko says.
While Khandwala may find it difficult to get out of bed in the mornings, he has opted to push himself every day. “I got to a point where I wasn’t going to let these symptoms control my life,” he said. “I have to tell myself that summer is almost here. And I also try to surround myself with positive people.”
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on February 5, 2014.