Before going to Boston for college, I cannot remember a single day when I checked the temperature. I remember calling up my parents, explaining how difficult it was to acclimate to Farenheit instead of Celcius, to which they said, “Why would that matter? When have you ever discussed the weather back home?” This was true, of course. When the most massive chunk of your life was lived in a state ranging between 70-85 degrees Fahrenheit, there was never a need to open the weather app to decide what kind of clothes would best suit that day. Which is why, after coming to college, I found myself frozen with shock when I had to plan my outfit every morning according to the exact degree.
The temperature on its own, though, was relatively easier to navigate through. Yes, my YouTube search history became cluttered with “Layering outfits during New England weather: cute,” but I found myself managing. Then it became sunset at 4:30 p.m. every day. There is something fundamentally disconcerting about reorienting your day when it’s dark outside. I used to joke that my will to be productive went down with the sun, but I steadily realized that I wasn’t kidding.
It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that I had severe seasonal depression during my freshman fall. I found myself in denial while I began to debilitate, explaining flawed logic to my friends that “seasonal depression” must imply that one was suffering from inexplicable sorrow, while I just felt numb. My room began to slowly look like it had been struck by a hurricane, showering and personal hygiene began to feel like a chore, and I found myself making more and more excuses not to attend my classes and instead sleep for dysfunctionally long hours and still feel remarkably tired. It was only after I thanked the shadow graded semester and witnessed my uncharacteristic academic and social life drop that I recognized that something had been wrong.
According to Mayo Clinic, Seasonal Affective Disorder (incidentally, SAD), is a type of depression that is related to seasonal changes — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. SAD on its own is a kind of depressive disorder, affecting roughly 4-6% of the population. However, close to 20% of people in the United States experience a milder form of it. This is colloquially known as “the winter blues.” The American Academy of Family Physicians explicitly added that these symptoms generally start when days get shorter and colder, and with daylight savings having just kicked in, that period has just about started. Reading through articles, I recognized how many commonalities I had with the symptoms written down.
The funny thing about this disorder is it seems to creep up on you, and unless you’re actively aware of it, it’s near impossible to effectively pull yourself out of it. And for something this common, it is definitely not talked about enough. Preventatively, I decided to devise a list of things to keep me from falling back into unhealthy habits through the beginning of spring semester. While I am certainly no expert, here is my list of (hopefully) helpful tips to get through the potentially tumultuous New England winter:
1. Purchase a Sun Lamp
This one is relatively intuitive. Bright light therapy — exposure to artificial light to help keep one’s circadian rhythm on track — is widely considered a first-line treatment option for SAD. This can be done by using a Sun Lamp or a Phototherapy Box.
2. Prioritize Social Activities
While this seems like the last thing one would want to do when they’re feeling bogged down by seasonal depression (especially if they have more introverted tendencies), studies have found a causal relationship between social isolation and depression. If leaving your room is undesirable because of the cold, find social time through calls and FaceTimes, or even common room hangout sessions. According to Dr. Malinowski from Everyday Health, “Proactive is the way to go.”
3. Create Personal Must-Do’s
One thing I found helpful was creating a list of activities through the week that I absolutely had to do. For me, this semester, this includes spending at least an hour in Cambridge after class every Monday and Wednesday. This time could be spent just sitting in a cafe and finishing up an essay or meeting a friend from a different school in the city. But by offering myself that change in scenery, I give myself an opportunity to get ready, get out of my room and allow myself to feel like I’ve had a productive day.
4. Stick to a Schedule
This one is something I find myself struggling with the most. But becoming an aggressively obnoxious Google Calendar girl has helped me keep rigid schedules that I cannot worm out of by holing myself up in my room. One thing that people with seasonal depression experience is difficulty sleeping and getting up in the morning. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule, therefore, exposes you to light at consistent and predictable times, allows you to eat meals more regularly and creates a routine.
5. Get an Accountabili-Buddy
Whether it’s just complaining about it or actively seeking help, many people I’ve met in college struggle with seasonal depression. Your friends and/or roommate might have some difficulty with it as well. By navigating through this with a friend, you can hold each other accountable for the other things (schedule following, social interaction, etc.). This makes creating excuses to get out of your progress exponentially harder!
6. Get Moving!
As it does with any form of depression, working out helps ease people out of the winter blues. The “running high” shoots you with endorphins, and exercise forces you to move around instead of staying in your room and making excuses for not leaving because it’s too cold outside.
7. Sunshine, Sunshine, Sunshine
This is self-explanatory. Get out as early as possible and stay near windows (and make sure to keep yours open) during as many hours of sunshine as possible. Or bundle up and go for a walk around the lake.
8. Start taking Vitamin D tablets
Vitamin D deficiencies may be a risk factor in depressive symptoms. Low levels of vitamin D — caused by low dietary intake of this vitamin or not enough sunlight exposure — are common in people with SAD. Taking a tablet a week could help from a physical health perspective.
Journaling not only helps prioritize life’s problems and identify your depression triggers, but also has a positive effect on your mood. Including thoughts, feelings and concerns (especially at the end of the day) helps get negative emotions out of your system.
10. Schedule an Appointment with a Therapist
This is the most obvious one. While winter blues are more temporary, SAD is a form of depression, and a professional can help you work through it. It also might be a good idea to figure out if it is just seasonally induced or another, more complex form of depression or mental illness. It could also help untangle negative emotions that may surface due to isolation and unhealthy eating habits that crop up as a result of seasonal depression. For on-campus help, schedule an appointment at the Stone Center. Otherwise, use this link to learn more about scheduling in the Greater Boston Area.
Unfortunately, there’s no quick-fix solution to existing in the greater Boston area without watching the sun go down two to three hours before you’ve had dinner. But that doesn’t mean your productivity and mood have to go down with it. It’s getting darker, whether we like it or not. It’s up to us to conjure our own sunshine.