counseling center/winter

The trend with most winters is that, with the short days and cold, many people feel down, or lethargic. Seasonal affective disorder, often known as seasonal depression, is a type of depression that occurs mostly during the winter months.

According to Natalie Muskin-Press, a staff therapist from the Counseling Center, there are many factors contributing to why seasonal depression may or may not occur.

“The main reason is the light,” Muskin-Press said. “We have less light. And so that can mess with things like our circadian rhythm, which can then mess with our sleep.”

The lack of light, in addition to disrupting the circadian rhythm, can also contribute to problems with vitamin D and melatonin, a hormone which helps regulate sleep.

“All of those things are things that can lead to depression if they’re not in sync because what it usually leads to is lethargy, low motivation, low energy,” Muskin-Press said “So a lot of what we see for people who have seasonal affective disorder is that like, ‘I don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. I am tired way more than I used to be. I don’t have energy for things that I usually like.”

According to Muskin-Press, seasonal affective disorder can be “particularly rough” for college students because of their inconsistent schedule.

“If you don’t have a reason to get up at seven and get moving, why would you?” Muskin-Press said. “So you deny yourself morning light, which is the best light.”

It can also be difficult for college students to cope with seasonal affective disorder because of the nature of a new semester beginning on top of other responsibilities. The change of returning to class and not being able to start slow can be exhausting to students. 

“You come back to college and like you’ve had three weeks off,” Muskin-Press said. “And while your classes are starting over a lot of your responsibilities are still in full swing. So it could be this really jarring, like, ‘oh, I’m not going to get to ease into my semester.’”

Muskin-Press said that it can also be harmful to overindulge in staying bundled up inside out of the cold. By staying in, you keep yourself away from precious sunlight, seeing friends, and even eating healthy food.

“Randomly seeing friends when we walk through the library and doing a workout class that gives us endorphins, walking to the Union to have lunch with people rather than nuking a mac and cheese bowl. All of those things put us in places where we get positive experiences,” Muskin-Press said. 

If any of these problems sound familiar, know that there are things that can help. Muskin-Press suggests going outside even when you don’t want to, and doing exercise that puts you in exposure to light, even if that only means working out in front of a window. Eating healthy and reminding yourself to drink water, instead of a hot drink, are also good ways to keep energy up. 

“Even for me I have such a hard time drinking water in the winter because all I want is something warm. And then I’m like, well, then that’s what coffee is for because I am also lethargic,” Muskin-Press said. “So we all probably make choices in the winter that don’t always lend themselves to us feeling our best but they feel comforting in the moment, because you’re cold and it’s dark and you want comfort. But sometimes what we view as being comforting isn’t always the best tool for our overall health.”

Muskin-Press also suggests it’s problematic that without proper decoration dorm rooms can seem glum. Decorating with things like plants and warm lighting can help to stave off the cold outside.

“Anything that creates a feeling of warmth in your room is really good because it helps push back against the cold,” Muskin-Press said. “Like if it looks cold and gray outside and it looks cold and gray inside it’s really hard.”

Another effective treatment for seasonal depression is light therapy. The Counseling Center has a lightbox which students can arrange to use, even while simply doing homework. Personal lightboxes can also be purchased at affordable rates online. There are lights that can be set for the time you wake up to emulate morning light on cloudy days or if you have to wake up before sunrise.  

“It’s actually really effective,” Muskin-Press said. “It’s been shown that fifteen to thirty minutes of light therapy a couple times a week greatly decreases [seasonal affective disorder.]”

For additional resources, the Counseling Center is located at the back of Alumni Hall, across from the front entrance to Lankenau, or can be contacted at counseling.center@valpo.edu.

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