Letting the Light In

Feeling SAD and Feeling Better

When my life began falling apart the winter of my freshman year, I knew what to blame. I was stressed out by my classes. Finals were rapidly approaching without me having learned seemingly anything. I felt like everyone around me had made life-long friends or at least had a solid Ratty crew. I had three friends that I met at orientation whom I clung to even as they drifted to their real college lives. I wasn’t eating enough, or I was drinking too much. Whatever it was, I felt bad all the time. Motivating myself to do anything was difficult. I showered less often than I’d like to admit. I spent my free time in bed. When the feeling slowly subsided in the spring, I thought it was because all of these problems worked themselves out, as freshman year problems often do. Bad things happened and I felt bad; bad things stopped happening and I felt better.

When my life began falling apart the winter of my sophomore year, I had no idea what to blame. I had switched concentrations and didn’t hate my classes all of the time. I was in an incredibly supportive relationship and had increasingly close friends. My Ratty meals were veggie-filled, and I did mixed martial arts twice a week. By all accounts I was living a healthy, happy life. But slowly that feeling began to creep in. I couldn’t find energy for all the things I usually wanted to do. If bad things weren’t happening, why did I feel so bad?

I wish I could say that was when I sat down and figured it out, or that I went to Psych Services. Feeling bad and doing badly are not the same things, however, and being able to get out of bed, go to classes, and act like a functional, if unhappy, human being meant to me that I didn’t have depression or anything “real,” anyway. So for most of my time at Brown, I’ve had crappy winters that I write off as inevitable. I had read about seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is basically a mild to moderate depression brought on by winter and its lack of sunlight. Even though I knew that winter was, for as long as I can remember, a pretty bad time for me, I didn’t do anything about it.

This year has been the first year that I’ve tried to stop obsessing over whether or not there’s something wrong with me and just started doing things about it. I am very clearly not a doctor, and if this resonates with you, I highly recommend you do your own research or hit up some medical professionals. But here are some small things I’ve done differently this year that have seemed to make my life better.

All of the Lights: Light therapy feels incredibly stupid when you start doing it. You plug a panel of lights into the wall and sit next to it for 15 to 45 minutes, ideally in the morning. You’re not supposed to look directly at it, but it should hit you in the corner of your eyes so it reaches your retinas. It’s a bright light, and it gives me a mild headache sometimes, but I have decided that I’m doing it every day. So I keep doing it, and I have successfully not fallen apart yet. It’s possible that it’s a placebo, but a number of studies have found light therapy roughly as effective as antidepressants. There are a number of options on Amazon ranging from $60 tiny ones to $200 huge ones. But here’s the great news: CAPS will let you rent a box for a $25 deposit.

Pills and Potions: Since I decided to go all-in on the lack-of-sunlight factor, I’ve been taking Vitamin D capsules. Vitamin D deficiency is highly associated with seasonal depression, since that’s what your body produces from sunlight. A winter’s worth of D3 was under $10 on Amazon, so I’ve been popping those daily. I personally haven’t taken melatonin because my sleep isn’t worse in the winter, but a lot of people swear by it. Melatonin plays a crucial role in regulating sleep schedules and is one of the key hormones affected by SAD; taking it as a supplement helps you take back control after your body loses the normal day-night cycle in the winter. Other ideas are fish oil supplements and multivitamins.

Actual Sunlight: Being outside is hard in the winter. It’s cold. You’re not going to sit outside for hours soaking up the sun. Here’s the secret: being close to windows at all times. Pick your favorite sunny lobby and squat there. Try to align your study schedule slightly more with sunlight. My favorite place in the winter is the greenhouse on top of BERT, which is somehow always deserted, crazy warm, and filled with plants, fountain sounds, and sunlight.

Packing a Bigger Punch: This is the obligatory plug for other campus resources that accompany any mental health article. CAPS has short term counseling that can help you figure out what’s going on and how to change it. Project LETS has fantastic peer counseling. There are weekly support groups of all kinds at Brown. If you’ve ever thought about attending one but hesitated to go, winter is a great time to let yourself start.

Picking yourself out of the dark hole of winter is difficult, but it’s worth it to not lose six months of your year. Most of all, remember to be patient with yourself. Everyone has bad days, snow or shine, and eventually most things do get better. In the meantime, take it easy. The sun will come back.