Rain, rain, go away
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Story by Janessa Rosick
When the air turns crisp and the days become rainier, the weather conditions may not be the only thing changing. For some, the change in seasons also triggers a change in mood. If tiredness and moodiness constantly align with the fall and winter months, it may be an indication of a greater issue.
Half a million people experience a type of winter depression, the American Psychological Association estimates. Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD, is a psychological mood disorder associated with having depressive symptoms in the winter months, but not in the spring or summer months when more light is present. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that it is also characterized as more commonly affecting people who live in the northern latitudes.
Western alumna Blake Stewart found she was experiencing SAD during the school year. “I went to a doctor for depression and she asked a bunch of questions with symptoms,” Stewart says. “We found out that they were more frequent in the wintertime, so she suggested I get a SAD lamp.”
Because morning light appears later and nighttime has an earlier onset during the winter months, people with SAD usually feel their poorest during January and February, the American Psychological Associated reports. “I really noticed it was when it wasn’t sunny anymore and the skies were completely overcast and gray, it would just zap all my energy,” Stewart says.
Catharine Vader, Western’s Wellness Outreach Center coordinator, says it is important to look for mood patterns related to the weather and shorter days. “Some people can find they’re a lot more tired, have fatigue, crave carbohydrates and feel down,” she says. If a person sees a link between these kinds of symptoms and the weather or daylight patterns, he or she is a candidate for SAD light therapy.
Light therapy affects the light and dark cycle in order to reset the sleep and wake cycle with other rhythms in the brain, the National Institution of Mental Health reports. This happens when light enters in through the eyes’ retinas and works on the pineal gland in order to decrease the production of melatonin, the hormone that makes people sleepy, says Vader. Side effects of light therapy are usually mild, but can trigger headaches or nausea or make some people feel jumpy, the American Psychological Association says.
Western offers light therapy stations in the Prevention and Wellness Services Center and the Student Health Center. The light station sits on top of a desk where those who are feeling the effects of SAD can sit. Vader notes that the light therapy is most effective when used in the morning, typically for 15 to 20 minutes. The light does not have to be stared at directly; one is able to read or do homework during the light therapy session.
Stewart purchased her own SAD lamp for her desk. While she was doing her homework she would have the light above her so it shined down on her work area, making it easier to stay focused, she says. Prior to using light therapy Stewart remembers always having a difficult time getting up in the morning, causing her to skip classes. After using the lamp regularly she was able to wake up in the mornings more easily. She also experienced added energy and felt more alert.
People can also achieve the effects of light therapy on their own. Vader recommends students walk instead of taking the bus in order to get the daily benefits of outdoor light exposure. Going to bed and waking up at the same time each night and morning helps to regulate the body, Stewart says. “It really helps to have a schedule that’s the same every day.”
Though the days are shorter during the fall and winter months, it doesn’t mean daily schedules and activities have to suffer the consequences. By monitoring symptoms and seeking help when needed, one can shed some light on Bellingham’s darkest days.