Mosaic / January 31, 2019

How to combat seasonal affective disorder this winter

Assistant Dean for Student Wellness/Director of Counseling Services Janell McGruder encourages students to utilize the Counseling Center’s self-guided light therapy lamps. (Rafael Cho/TKS)

Note: The DSM now recognizes Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as Depression Disorder with Seasonal Patterns, but it will be referred to as SAD in this article.

 

Senior David Petrak first noticed signs of SAD during his senior year of high school. He tries to force himself to get out of the house during the wintertime. (Rafael Cho/TKS)

Senior David Petrakforces himself to get out of bed for class, to see friends and go to yoga on Wednesdays, but even those small actions are a feat during winter time. Petrak deals with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), meaning that his year-round depression symptoms are amplified to an extreme. It is hard for him to go outside most days in the winter, but not just because of the cold.

“I started to notice it happening my senior year of high school,” said Petrak. “It really starts when daylight savings happens. Once the sun starts going down I feel like my soul is being sucked out of me, to put it lightly … The sun I think omits a natural energy and when that is taken away for the majority of the day, it feels like so much vitality is being lost through that.”

Petrak is not alone in his experiences with SAD, as it is common for about 5 percent of adults in the US, particularly women, to experience symptoms according to the American Psychiatric Association. This has to do with the light deficiency and lack of serotonin, as well as the lack of social engagement that people are used to in warmer months.

“My suggestion if you’re feeling this kind of way, is basically to do the opposite [of what you’re feeling],” said Assistant Dean for Student Wellness/Director of Counseling Services Janell McGruder. “Setting up times with your friends to do things together, making sure you talk to people. People are so bundled up in the winter but it’s about making connections with each other and we lose that. Being engaged with people and class is important.”

McGruder explained that there are many signs to look for when it comes to identifying SAD. Some include: sleeping more, craving sweets and carbohydrates, not finding joy in the things one normally finds joy in, mood swings and irritability.

“There’s a natural tendency to stay inside when it’s winter but if you’re disconnecting yourself  not even texting your friends or however you communicate  if you’re not doing that then that’s a sign something else is going on,” McGruder said. “Mood swings and irritability are signs to look for in your friends, if you notice a friend isn’t eating or is withdrawn … If someone is usually pretty happy but now is more reserved, or is irritable, they might not realize that they are being affected or to what degree.”

Both Petrak and McGruder agree that the best thing someone struggling with SAD can do is to get out of the house, or at least out of bed, and engage with the outside world.

“I think [SAD] affects all of it … Not just going to class and finishing work but going to parties and even seeing friends. You have to put more energy into everything because you don’t want to leave your house,” Petrak said. “I don’t want to get up and walk to the Gizmo or class or yoga but if I literally force myself to do it then I 100 percent feel better afterward. At the time it feels better to stay in bed but I’ve found that doing things that you know will be good for you makes a world of difference.”

McGruder agrees that getting up and out is one way of giving people with SAD a sense of purpose in dark months, and stresses that staying on top of responsibilities is the best way to help oneself.

Senior David Petrak first noticed signs of SAD during his senior year of high school. He tries to force himself to get out of the house during the wintertime. (Rafael Cho/TKS)

“The best thing academically that students can do in the winter is go to class. To me, academic success is self care. The reality is, if you’re not doing your academic work then you’re not taking care of yourself,” McGruder said. “If you’re having difficulty with homework or class, communicate with your professor, they’re there to help you. Give yourself some more time for things like getting to class and doing homework.”

McGruder also mentioned there are other small ways to make oneself feel better physically, even when one’s mental state isn’t matching.

“Eating healthy is hard in the winter because we’re craving carbohydrates and sweets  but incorporating fruits and vegetables so that you’re getting those vitamins. Find an alternative way of doing something that you love to do  if it’s too cold for you to get to [Whitcomb] or the dance studio or something, find space in your room or suite to do what you love,” said McGruder.

The Counseling Center has had light therapy lamps for a year now, giving students suffering with SAD the option of self-guided light therapy. This replicates the light that the sun gives off, giving individuals more energy.

“The best way to utilize our light therapy is to try it as early in the morning as you can and if you find that it’s helpful for you, I would say go out and get one,” said McGruder.

“I got into [light therapy] last term, I got a lamp off of Amazon. I think it does work in more subconscious ways  it feels like there’s more energy in the room,” said Petrak. “It feels comforting and stimulating at the same time. I’ll put it on and do dishes or do my homework or something. I’ve never done it through counseling services, but I think if I were to just sit there and absorb it, [that] wouldn’t be as effective.”

With Galesburg covered in layers of snow and ice, wind chills dropping and class still in session, it’s no wonder students feel depressed. Whether it is SAD or just the winter blues, McGruder and Petrak both agree that all students could benefit from checking in on their own mental health every so often. Being aware of one’s mental well-being is an important step in getting the help one needs, whether it be getting more physical exercise, light therapy or just more social interaction.

“I think just having more of a conversation about [SAD] in public or increasing the awareness of it because a lot of people probably don’t know that they’re being affected by it,” Petrak said. “Increasing awareness of things that people usually do to help with mental health should be more in the forefront in the winter.”

“I think [SAD] affects all of it … Not just going to class and finishing work but going to parties and even seeing friends. You have to put more energy into everything because you don’t want to leave your house,” Petrak said. “I don’t want to get up and walk to the Gizmo or class or yoga but if I literally force myself to do it then I 100 percent feel better afterward. At the time it feels better to stay in bed but I’ve found that doing things that you know will be good for you makes a world of difference.”

McGruder agrees that getting up and out is one way of giving people with SAD a sense of purpose in dark months, and stresses that staying on top of responsibilities is the best way to help oneself.

McGruer thinks that academic success is self-care. Students who are behind on academic work will eventually need to play catch-up, which ends in more stress.

“If you’re having difficulty with homework or class, communicate with your professor, they’re there to help you. Give yourself some more time for things like getting to class and doing homework. Do your homework early so you can get enough sleep, that is so important in the winter time. If you’re not sleeping, nothing’s working.”

McGruder also mentioned there are other small ways to make oneself feel better physically, even when one’s mental state isn’t matching.

“Eating healthy is hard in the winter because we’re craving carbohydrates and sweets … but incorporating fruits and vegetables so that you’re getting those vitamins. Find an alternative way of doing something that you love to do — if it’s too cold for you to get to [Whitcomb] or the dance studio or something, find space in your room or suite to do what you love,” said McGruder.

The Counseling Center has had light therapy lamps for a year now, giving students suffering with SAD the option of self-guided light therapy. This replicates the light that the sun gives off, giving individuals more energy.

“The best way to utilize our light therapy is to try it as early in the morning as you can and if you find that it’s helpful for you, I would say go out and get one,” said McGruder.

Petrak bought himself a light therapy lamp on Amazon. “It feels comforting and stimulating at the same time. I’ll put it on and do dishes or do my homework or something. I’ve never done it through counseling services, but I think if I were to just sit there and absorb it it wouldn’t be as effective as it would be if I was doing something during it.”

With Galesburg covered in layers of snow and ice, wind chills dropping and class still in session, it’s no wonder students feel depressed. Whether it is SAD or just the winter blues, McGruder and Petrak both agree that all students could benefit from checking in on their own mental health every so often. Being aware of one’s mental well-being is an important step in getting the help one needs, whether it be getting more physical exercise, light therapy or just more social interaction.

“I think just having more of a conversation about [SAD] in public or increasing the awareness of it because a lot of people probably don’t know that they’re being affected by it,” said Petrak. “Increasing awareness of things that people usually do to help with mental health should be more in the forefront in the winter.”

 

Schedule a light therapy session, intake session or consultation appointments email counseling@knox.edu or call (309) 341-7492.

Depression group: Tuesdays 4:15 p.m.

Relaxation group: Wednesdays 3rd period

Mind & Body group: Wednesdays 2nd period

Lillie Chamberlin
Lillie is a senior at Knox, majoring in creative writing and minoring in gender and women's studies. At The Knox Student, she has worked as the discourse editor, co-editor-in-chief, and is now a co-mosaic editor. She is also a co-nonfiction editor at Catch. Her work has been published in the Galesburg Register-Mail.

Tags:  counseling services depression happy lamps light therapy mental health resources SAD seasonal affective disorder winter winter blues

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