Seasonal depression, or seasonal affective disorder, is a process during which your mood changes in response to changing seasons, shorter days, colder weather, or all of the above. As medical students, seasonal depression is just one of many mental health disorders that you might encounter, which can significantly impair performance in and outside of medical school. It may be worse for medical students when rotations keep you in the hospital early morning and late in the evening so that you never even see daylight at all. The following are a few tips to assist in overcoming some of your symptoms to get you through the winter hump:
1. Recognize this is not in your head.
Being told that the weather shouldn’t affect your mood and that you can “control” your own mood by just “perking up” is simply untrue. There is a biological basis for this process that can be attributed to circadian rhythms and changing melatonin levels, as well as a number of adaptive physiologic processes that occur when our bodies are exposed to lower temperatures. All of the above can most definitely have an effect on your body and your mind.
2. Get as much exercise as possible.
Exercise has now been definitively linked to easing mood symptoms. One of the largest studies to prove this was just performed in 2018 and published in Lancet Psychiatry with extremely convincing results . Anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes of moderate aerobic exercise can increase mood in the gloomy winter months. This can be tough as a medical student with multiple things pulling you in different directions. Tell yourself that dedication to an exercise regimen will help you in many different domains if you are feeling better!
3. Talk to others.
Like almost anyone going through anything in life, you are not alone. Talk to other students, go to support groups, or talk to your friends, family, or loved ones. Everyone’s mood fluctuates to some extent in response to different triggers, and getting to know how everyone else has gone through these things will help to both normalize your experience as well as give you insight into how you might overcome your own seasonal depression.
4. Eat well.
The role of diet in your mood has also been well-established. Ensure you are eating a healthy, balanced diet. Make sure you are drinking plenty of water. Limit your alcohol intake. One area that suffers tremendously when one’s mood is low is diet, which begets even worse mood symptoms, which begets an even poorer diet. To nip this snowball effect in the bud, make sure you make a conscious effort to be eating as well as you can.
5. Get as much light as possible.
This is often difficult on a medical student schedule, but it can be done! If you have a lunch break, go outside and eat if it’s not too cold. If you have an opportunity to walk home in the light and spend a little bit more time outside, take advantage. Light itself has mood-boosting effects, and phototherapy is actually the use of artificial light to treat seasonal depression.
6. Get help.
This is the most important step. First, do not diagnose and try to treat yourself. Trust yourself in the hands of an expert who deals with many people with seasonal depression on a daily basis. You can get started through your primary care provider, and some medical schools actually have internal resources just for medical students going through similar things. A professional may be able to recommend medication, therapy, or a combination of both that will help you achieve your mental health goals.