The long trek to the end of the semester is nearing its destination and Spokane’s winter season has taken effect. With finals right around the corner and a change of scenery with the weather, students’ mental health may be taking a toll with all these stress factors. Students feeling more depressed, fatigued and socially drained during this time of the year may have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
“Some people call it a depression, they call it the winter blues, it has a lot of similarities to depression but it’s seasonal,” said Angela Velasco, mental health counselor at Gonzaga University. “For some people it may be spring, but a lot of people experience this in the winter. It has to do with the amount of light that is produced by the sun during the season and how it disrupts our natural circadian rhythms.”
According to Velasco, there are some differences between depression and SAD.
“There’s lots of overlap between depression and SAD,” Velasco said. “The main thing to note is that SAD is going to be low grade, it won’t be as intense. It is more cyclic, like, ‘Every winter I go through this.’ It’s not caused by events, it’s not even a hormonal or chemical imbalance, it’s just part of our body responding to our environment.”
Velasco said that feelings of sadness or depression are typical signs of SAD. People may socially withdraw due to having a lack of motivation to do things or go out with friends. People may also develop sleeping issues, whether it is sleeping too much or being able to sleep.
“Not everyone experiences SAD, but I would say that in general those who already struggle with depression feel it more,” Velasco said. “There can also be some correlation with other mental health disorders, and they will be affected more with any changes in the season whether positive or negative.”
GU junior Kendyl Noelle Eugenio said she makes use of resources on campus to deal with the season change.
“I’m from Hawaii so the weather change really impacts my mental health because I’m so used to the sun,” Eugenio said. “So, what I usually do is I speak to the Health and Counseling Center on campus. I see a therapist on campus.”
Aside from on-campus resources, Eugenio said there are steps she takes in her personal life as well.
“I also use a happy light and take vitamin D which really helps,” Eugenio said. “I would also say regularly calling home helps a lot. FaceTiming my family helps give me motivation to finish the semester strong and just having little things to look forward to for each day, like I’m a big coffee drinker so that often gets me out of bed.”
Velasco said that some strategies for dealing with SAD are utilizing light boxes or changing out regular lightbulbs to a full spectrum ones. She said she buys a hue light and connects it to her phone to schedule a sunrise alarm system so her body can have the natural process of waking up to the sun.
“Waking and sleeping has to do with the light and darkness,” Velasco said. “It is about the light hitting our eyelids, which then triggers a signal in our hippocampus that allows us to sleep or be awake. When we’re asleep, you’re still taking in information, so your body is still going off of this signal even if it’s not true sunlight.”
Velasco said SAD may be scary and isolating for those experiencing it for the first time, but it is a normal process of our bodies.
“Our bodies were designed to conserve energy during the winter,” Velasco said. “There’s less food, less things to do, you might as well sleep through. So this is a really beautiful thing if our society allowed it, if our way of life made it happen.”
According to Velasco, it is important to keep on the same routine through winter. Keeping routines consistent during the season may help with the lack of motivation. Exercising and trying to be outside despite the cold weather could also be beneficial for those experiencing SAD.
She also suggests that students talk to their friends when they begin to feel down.
“If you need to talk to somebody, come in and talk to Health and Counseling or Cura Personalis,” Velasco said. “Talk to your mentors, talk to your friends, talk to your dog. Anytime you’re with others and feel that positive connection, it’s always good.”