Beating the winter blues

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Photo illustration by Elliott Miller
Photo illustration by Elliott Miller

Fall semester is always so exciting. Students come back to campus and reunite with friends in warm temperatures and beautiful scenery.

But, as the semester goes on, temperatures drop, days get shorter and everything is darker, leading into the notorious Utah winter. With these seasonal changes, attitudes and motivation can change too.

According to Bates College, Seasonal Affective Disorder, or seasonal depression, “is characterized by recurrent major depression episodes during the fall and winter months, with remissions during the spring and summer months.”

“There’s a certain percentage of the population, especially in northern latitudes, that tend to struggle with depression seemingly because of the change in seasons,” said Steve Smith, director for the counseling and career center at BYU.

Seasonal depression tends to have greater liability for affecting young adults and those who have moved from southern latitudes. Studies have shown the darkness during the winter months triggers the production of melatonin, a sleep hormone that is linked to depression. This overproduction of melatonin can affect mood, energy levels and concentration.

“The sleep/wake cycle is highly regulated by the hormone melatonin,” said Corinne Morrison, a research assistant in a neuroscience addiction studies lab. “If you have too much at the wrong points of the day, your brain thinks that it’s time to sleep when your body doesn’t need it, and vice versa. Anytime that there’s a hormone imbalance it affects all of your body systems, and it can affect the chemical processes in your brain and lead to depression.”

BYU students have a great risk of developing seasonal depression because of the drastic changes Utah experiences between September and April. Brittany Bivings, a senior from Colorado Springs, Colo., never struggled with depression until the seasons changed during her sophomore year.

“I was in a bad mood all the time,” Bivings said. “All of my problems came crashing on me, and I felt a lot of stress, anxiety and pressure. My bad moods began to affect the people I hung out with because I was so angry all the time.”

Bivings had just begun a relationship with her now fiancé, Brandt Lovell, when these dark feelings came over her.

“It was really hard on me and Brandt,” Bivings said. “We were in a newer relationship so it was already hard, but to add these feelings that I had never experienced before made it especially difficult. I didn’t realize that I was that emotionally unstable, but looking back now, I can totally see it.”

How can it be treated?

Psychologists have recommended a variety of treatments to help combat seasonal depression. At the top of the list is full-spectrum light therapy.

“Some studies suggest that light timed during a particular time of day is going to be more useful,” Smith said. “Getting light in the morning is going to be more useful than in the afternoon.”

Other treatments include natural sunlight, medication and cognitive therapy.

“Cognitive therapy tends to help people with their thinking patterns,” Smith said. “If an individual gets depressed, it’s a little hard to say what caused the depression. You start to develop negative thinking patterns, and when you develop those, cognitive therapy helps you to start to identify what your negative thinking patterns are and replace them with more accurate or positive thinking.”

A combination of light and cognitive therapy has proven to be the most effective.

Seeking counsel from a therapist can also be an effective treatment.

“There’s a lot of really good research about the (ethics) of psychotherapy,” Smith said. “It really does do a lot of good, especially if you’re speaking with a competent therapist who knows how to help (a patient) challenge their beliefs or look at their beliefs differently or substitute beliefs and can really help them to deal with the struggles they are having.”

If left untreated, seasonal depression tends to treat itself when weather conditions improve and warmer temperatures return.

How to prevent it

Even though the conditions outside may seem completely unbearable, there are ways to lower the chances of developing seasonal depression. The basic grade-school answers to remaining healthy can help keep a positive attitude and be rejuvenating during the difficult winter months.

“Remain active — not just with school,” Smith said. “Exercise, eat well and get plenty of sleep. Those seem so trivial to say, but it’s really true. If a student will pay attention and make sure he or she is getting seven to eight hours of sleep, that he or she is eating good meals during the day and getting exercise, that is going to help a lot.”

Maintaining a relationship with the outdoors, even with the cold temperatures, will also help. A study conducted by Norman Rosenthal has found that one hour of outdoor aerobic activity (even with cloudy skies overhead) had the same benefits as 2.5 hours of light treatment indoors.

Despite the dreary conditions, students can overcome seasonal depression. Anyone suffering from depression can schedule an appointment to meet with one of the BYU counselors.

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