No Bowdoin student needs to be reminded that New England's winters are notoriously long, dark and cold. The winter months in Maine, though occasionally exciting, are no exception to the rule. As the days become shorter, some students may find that they have a case of the winter blues, and sometimes, seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that is related to a lack of light. As the days grow shorter and people are exposed to significantly less daylight (generally starting in November), those with SAD begin to experience the symptoms, which can include sleeping and eating more, a reduction in productivity, and feeling more sadness.
People affected by the disorder can find it hard to get out of bed and sometimes experience dread at the thought of facing the day, and also may have difficulty accomplishing their work.
"It's typically not a disabling type of depression, but it can make it more challenging to complete tasks," said Director of the Counseling Service Bernie Hershberger.
SAD may affect about five percent of American adults, or close to 14 million people, according to Columbia's Health Internet Service. A map by Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, the man who first defined the disorder, shows that the percentage of people with both winter blues (a milder form of SAD) and SAD increases with increasing latitude.
There are a number of treatments and tricks that those who experience SAD can use to alleviate their symptoms. For example, Columbia recommends that people use bright colors in their rooms, keep their shades and curtains open, and do their work by a window.
Many people also find that skiing, through a combination of lots of sun and exercise, helps them to feel significantly better. A week-long trip to a sunny climate is an even more appealing alternative, and is often effective.
"A week in another place getting bathed in light is often enough to offset what's going on in the brain," said Hershberger.
Along the same lines, light therapy has also proved to be an effective treatment for SAD, and possibly other types of depression as well. This treatment simply requires that the person be exposed to special lighting for about 30 minutes per day.
Students interested in purchasing a light for light therapy can try it out first. The Counseling Center has a light available that people can borrow for five to seven days. If it is clear it is helping to alleviate symptoms, students will be encouraged to purchase their own lights.
Sometimes, people feel that they are experiencing some of the symptoms of SAD, especially sleeping or eating more, even if they do not have the disorder. In reality, humans, like many other animals, do undergo a natural hibernation cycle in fall and winter. Often, however, people try to circumvent this natural rhythm.
"A certain amount of hibernation this time of year is actually okay," reassured Hershberger, and said that in the case of SAD, sleeping late would become a more sustained pattern.
Also, Hershberger noted that slight weight gain is not unusual, especially because people tend to crave carbohydrates to gather more energy for the winter.
Several first years expressed being more worried about the cold than the darkness, and some were surprised to hear how early it gets dark. Students who have already lived through a Bowdoin winter agreed that the winter is long, but that it is not all bad.
"I love waking up on a snowy day, mostly because I never got to experience snow at home," said Sarah Landrum, a sophomore from New Orleans. "And there are many things you can do to avoid getting winter depression, like going outside in the snow when it is sunny, or making the most of a snowy day by cuddling up with a good book and a cup of hot chocolate."
While it may feel that we have a long winter ahead of us, the good news is that SAD usually subsides before the winter season ends. Sometimes it can last through March, but often people start to feel better just knowing the days are getting longer again.
"In Maine, it tends to clear up by the winter solstice," Hershberger said. "People usually respond pretty quickly when the light is back."