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Opinion

Seasonal Affective Disorder can impact students at UWRF

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February 18, 2010

Do you feel like you want to hibernate?  Are you more irritable than usual?  Do you feel down more than you do at other times of the year?  It could be Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD for short.

February and March are long months in these parts.  The reason seems to be, in part, that we are getting sick of winter and we start to let ourselves admit that we want spring. It seems that as soon as we start to want spring it plays hard to get and we start to feel worn-out.  This, coupled with lack of sunlight and cabin fever, is the perfect storm for a lowering of mood that requires some needed attention. 

The fortunate thing about dealing with SAD is that the steps to get through it remind us of the importance of recognizing how powerful the mind/body connection really is. Treat the body well
and your mind should follow.

Exercise:  The endorphins released during exercise counteract the build-up of cortisol in your brain.  Cortisol is a stress related chemical that accumulates in your brain and makes it hard to think and focus. Exercise also increases energy and our overall awareness of what our body craves to be healthy, like good food.

Food:  Stop eating foods that are high in fat and sugar and start eating foods that are high in protein, complex-carbs and fiber. If you want to do this quickly cut out pop, chips and fries from your diet and decrease your beer consumption.

Outside: Get outside as much as you can. Exercise outside if you can. Outside light helps SAD in ways that we aren’t exactly sure of, but one working theory is that it helps your body to maintain its sleep/wake cycle.  The winter is a time for increased sleep and most of us have felt the pull to “hibernate” in the later winter months. 

Since we don’t hibernate we need to get a blast of brighter outside light during the day to convince the brain that it’s shouldn’t go into slowdown mode during the day.

Routine: Get on a routine to grind through these last two months of tough weather. Bodies like routine for the same reason a kindergartner likes routine.  It likes to know what’s going to happen next and likes to start getting ready for the next thing a little before the next thing starts.

This means that you should try to get up, eat, exercise,  study, relax, and go to bed, at around the same time each day to do what you can to help your body cope with having less natural energy than it has at other times of the year.

Plan: Plan something cool to keep you excited about the not-so-distant future.  The idea that there is something good coming up gives you hope, and hope is hugely important for a sense of well-being.  This could be a party, or a vacation, or a summer job, or a future personal goal, or a puppy. I don’t care what it is as long as you can plan for it and it drives you onward.

Ask for help: Sometimes being down feels too big to deal with alone no matter what you are doing for it. That’s why we have professional counseling staff on campus. If you feel overwhelmed with your low mood, or you feel hopeless about the future, please call the counseling staff at UW-River Falls (715-425-3884).  We offer a free, confidential and professional, service to students. If you can’t reach us and you are having a mental health emergency, please call campus police at 715-425-3133 or 911.

Mark is a Licensed Psychologist in the state of Minnesota. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Wisconsin. He is experienced in individual and group counseling. He specializes in stress, anxiety, depression and relationship issues.

Mark Huttemier is a personal counselor and training coordinator at UW-River Falls.