Not Just the Winter Blues
by Marilyn Wolbert | published Feb. 2nd, 2021
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is a depression that changes with the seasons. Beginning and ending around the same time every year, SAD — commonly referred to as seasonal depression — tends to occur from the fall through winter months. So in Rochester, where the climate laughs as we slip on ice and mourn the sun for most of the year, how does one assess and cope with their seasonal depression?
SAD, Depression and ... Rochester?
SAD is a type of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and is assumed to be an imbalance of serotonin in the brain, triggered by a lack of sunlight. The main difference between these two is that MDD can be experienced at any point throughout the year, whereas SAD carries a seasonal pattern.
The symptoms behind this pattern are similar to MDD. Feeling depressed nearly every day, lack of energy, sleep problems and lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy are some of the symptoms experienced by those with SAD.
Aharon Sebton, a fourth year Electrical Engineering student, described what SAD is like for him.
"It feels like your mind and body are matching the outside world. In the winter, everything is cold, dark and dead outside. That’s how you feel on the inside too," Sebton said.
"In the winter, everything is cold, dark and dead outside. That's how you feel on the inside too."
A lot of this can be attributed to the fact that upstate New York is one of the cloudiest locations in the country. Solely just living here increases your risk of SAD. Rochester has an average of 200 days per year in overcast and is considered number six on the list of top ten cloudiest U.S. cities.
As one could imagine, living in an area that experiences such large amounts of overcast weather, students and employees in Rochester face a very difficult uphill battle for nearly nine months out of the year.
Amanda Redwine, a Counseling intern working towards her master's degree in Mental Health Counseling, described what triggers her depression.
“I would say loneliness, lack of exercise, stress,” Redwine said.
Redwine also mentioned that she feels the root of this seasonal depression is a lack of sunlight, exercise and the inability to be outside.
“We live in Chicago! It’s dark for six months straight, it’s terrible ... it’s cold, it’s windy, it’s awful,” she said.
Students and Depression
Each year, more college students are diagnosed with seasonal depression. For a location such as Rochester, N.Y., it’s only expected to see an increase in this depression as well. One’s college years are often associated as the most stressful years of life fueled by little sleep, poor diet and lack of exercise. Not to mention the copious amounts of schoolwork and financial instability that most students face. Plus, college isn’t for everybody — as controversial as it may seem, to some, the stress and overarching pressure of university causes more harm than good and can push some to leave college soon after starting.
Brady Bennett, a shift supervisor at Starbucks and freelance choreographer, gave his story with depression.
“Basically every semester of school, I was depressed. The summer in between the two years that I did go to school, I was depressed,” he said.
"Basically every semester of school, I was depressed."
It wasn’t until Bennett was out of school and away from the stress it induced that he felt his depression became more manageable.
“I found Starbucks, and I was doing better with life and have been feeling better for over a year now,” Bennett said.
University also brings an onset of new relationships that some may not have experienced previously. The immense amount of new emotions and new relationships aid in the increased depression of university students.
Having all of these barriers to begin with and then adding that to the intensely bad weather of Rochester, N.Y., makes it that much more difficult to cope with depression. With all of this working against those with MDD and SAD, how would one cope?
In addition to the stress of academic life and seasonal depression, there is now the factor of being restricted to one's home — whether that be with roommates or with family. Aside from conflicts that may arise between housemates and/or family members, the struggle of lack of socialization weighs heavily on some. This isolation and feeling of loneliness often fuels depression, coupled with the inability to distract yourself from this depression, is a recipe for disaster.
Sebton emphasized this, stating that the lack of extracurriculars, seems to also have affected the amount of schoolwork given, making things that much more difficult.
"It feels like professors have taken advantage of the fact that we are all spending most of our time at home," Sebton said. "The sheer amount of work I’ve been assigned this semester is crazy."
Coping Strategies for Seasonal Affective Disorder
When you are in the intense wave of depression, it is difficult to understand that there are ways to ease it and possible solutions in living with this mental illness.
One option is to add exercise into your daily routine. Finding a way to get up and move throughout the day will release endorphins and help you feel better. This may be a little unconventional during a pandemic in winter as you may not be able to go to the gym daily, or run outside when things get icy — trying indoor workouts or yoga is enough to release these chemicals.
Bennett mentioned using apps like Headspace, which teach you how to meditate. Practicing mindfulness is another way that many with mental illnesses help keep them in check.
Redwine, however, speaks with friends who listen to her struggles and help support her through the tough times. Finding a good group of people who will listen to you or offer to participate in activities you know make you feel better is a very positive approach to management.
There are plenty of ways to destress, which are different for everyone. Some may paint, write or follow creative pursuits, while others use a more social or athletic approach. Nonetheless, finding healthy coping strategies is crucial to living with MDD or SAD.
If you think you are dealing with mental illness, whether it be SAD, MDD, anxiety or any other, reach out. You can contact RIT’s Counseling and Psychological Services over the phone or at RIT's Counseling and Psychological Services website. Find a friend, a loved one — and know that you are not alone in this battle.