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The Clarion

The Student News Site of Bethel University

The Clarion

The Student News Site of Bethel University

The Clarion

Fighting the winter blues

Assistant Professor of Psychology Rachel Anderson and Psychology Club student leader Maggie Findlay share their knowledge on seasonal affective disorder and ways to stay healthy – both mentally and physically.

For some, the colder months reignite a passion for holiday drinks from Starbucks, road trips and rewatching the Twilight Saga. For others, the chill in the air and lack of vitamin D incites a sense of impending doom for the annually-dreaded seasonal depression. This phenomenon is known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD for short… how fitting.

But there is hope of escaping the oh-so-predictable grasp of SAD! Behavioral neuroscientist and Bethel psychology professor Dr. Rachel Anderson has some news for the night owls, Netflix bingers and hibernators: a change in routine might just spare you from the unrelenting cyclical nature of SAD. 

How does the weather affect our mood?

Anderson: SAD actually isn’t temperature-related and has nothing to do with being cold all the time – although that’s not necessarily fun either. It has much more to do with the physiological changes to the decrease in sunlight. When people are cold, they tend to stay inside, bundle up and not move much. This creates a cycle: the more tired people are, the more they don’t want to do anything, and the more they sit around not doing anything, the more tired they become. 

How does SAD differ from other depressive disorders?

Anderson: Seasonal affective disorder is highly dependent on the time of year. People will report they struggle a lot more with mood and interest in activities at the start of fall. Then symptoms go away almost completely in March or early April, without any other lifestyle changes. And that’ll happen again the following year. It could be major depressive disorder, dysthymia or something more generalized if symptoms start earlier than October or persist into the spring or summer. Researchers expected to see more people with seasonal affective disorder at higher latitudes than people living near the equator where the sun doesn’t change. We know empirically through many research studies that if you live in northern latitudes, you are much more likely to have seasonal affective disorder than people who live near the equator.

Circadian rhythms: How do they work?

Anderson: Our bodies operate under circadian rhythms, which are largely tied to light exposure. Circadian rhythms are jump-started in the morning – regulating many bodily functions including hormones, mood and productivity levels. Sunlight exposure in the morning is really important for starting a lot of the hormone neurotransmission regulation tied to circadian rhythms. In northern latitudes, the best sunlight is in the morning and will be gone by the time most people leave work at 3 or 4 p.m. So if you’re not a morning person, it’s important to start working toward getting the earliest sunlight exposure you can, especially in the winter. If you sleep in until 10 or 11 a.m., there are only three or four hours of daylight left, and that’s just not enough for your body to do what it needs to do in terms of sun regulation. Your body will thank you for soaking up early sunlight through a window or going outside, even if it’s cold. 

Sleep: Just how important is it?

Anderson: People with seasonal affective disorder need regular sleep hours where they go to bed and wake up at the same time, which helps their body know when “awake” hours are, even without light cues. It’s important to get enough sleep and to maintain a regular sleep schedule – even on weekends. Going to bed at 10 p.m. and waking up at 6 a.m. no matter what will help your body a lot. 

Findlay: I get up pretty regularly at the same time every day, around 7:45 a.m. Also, if I know I need to catch up on sleep, I’ll take a nap. It’s easy to think, I could be doing something else productive right now, but I know I’d be able to do things much more effectively if I’m well-rested. 

Exercise and eat nutritious food. Your body will thank you.

Anderson: Exercise is the natural cure-all for a lot of things – especially brain functioning. It does a lot for regulating hormones and neurotransmitters. Fatigue is a big problem in the winter for a lot of people – ironically, the less active someone is, the more tired they feel. Even 30 minutes of moderate activity increases alertness. 

Also, eating healthy is way better than taking vitamins and supplements. Getting vitamin D and Omega fatty acids is important for neurological functioning.

Findlay: Having a balanced diet to fuel your whole body is important because everything is so interconnected. If you exercise and take care of yourself physically, you’ll feel better because you’re releasing endorphins. Finding little things that work for you like going on a walk or run, or maybe doing a 15-minute workout from an app in your dorm room can be helpful. Eating foods with better nutritional value helps: fruits, vegetables and Omega-3s are great for brain health. 

Vitamin D and sun lamps: They work!

Anderson: The body creates vitamin D through sunlight. When sunlight exposure goes down, the body creates less vitamin D. I think a lot of physicians would suggest that people in northern latitudes take a daily vitamin D supplement in the winter, because not only is vitamin D good for mood, but it’s really important for bone health. Sitting in front of a sun box for 30 minutes every day has also been clinically proven to help people with seasonal affective disorder. These sun boxes, or sun lamps, emit light at the spectrum the sun emits light – around 10,000 UV. 

Findlay: Health Services at Bethel has a quiet room with a sun lamp you can go into and listen to white noise. Students can also check out sun lamps from Bethel’s library.

Isolation: It’s tempting, but don’t do it.

Anderson: People who struggle with depression, including SAD, tend to isolate, avoid talking to people and not involve themselves in as many activities, which will make everything worse. One thing with depression and SAD is to sometimes go against your instincts. If you don’t feel like exercising: exercise. If you don’t feel like doing anything social: do something social. If you don’t feel like talking to someone: you should talk to them. Talk to someone if you’re struggling, whether it’s your friend group or a counselor. 

For college students: Keep an eye out for your roommate. Are they sleeping in or sleeping a lot more than they used to? Are they showing signs of less social behaviors? Are they staying in their room or not spending time with friends? Those are all signs that something might be going on – it’s a good idea to check up with them because sometimes it’s hard to be the first to speak.

Findlay: It’s hard because I isolated [myself] a lot when I first had depressive symptoms, so I understand wanting to isolate yourself. I can’t say there’s one right way to not isolate, but I think a part of it is figuring out what works for you. Having a good support system around you is important – I think being as transparent as you can with people about where you’re at mentally is going to help you feel less overwhelmed. As an individual, coming to terms with the commonality of depression and realizing that a lot of people deal with this is helpful. But that’s also something we need to work on as a society at large – it shouldn’t be as stigmatized as it is. 

Seeking help: Do it!

Anderson: SAD is a real phenomenon and nothing is wrong with you [if you struggle with it]. It is a highly treatable condition with light exposure, exercise and in some cases, medication. Because the lack of light is the cause, if you can get yourself natural daylight regularly, have a regular sleep schedule and still don’t see improvement, medication may be needed. 

Findlay: One thing people shouldn’t be worried about is receiving counseling. Too often, I think people feel like they’re giving up when they seek help. But having someone to talk to and reaffirm you is helpful. I like therapy because some things make much more sense when you say them out loud. And maybe that person isn’t always a therapist – it could be a friend too. 

If you would like to learn more, Dr. Anderson will be hosting an informative session on seasonal affective disorder at Bethel Nov. 7 from 11:15-12 p.m. in HC113.

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About the Contributor
Alyssa Malyon, Staff Reporter
Alyssa Malyon, 19, is a journalism and psychology double major. This summer, she kept her hometown newspaper the Republican Eagle alive as the only staff reporter. Outside of her designated writing hours, she can be found frolicking in the forest or contemplating life in her hammock — probably with a kombucha in hand.  [email protected] | 651-380-6816
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