How Ithaca’s cloudy weather can increase the amount of SADness
By Lyndsey Lyman
Ithaca is famous for its position as a liberal, relaxed college town. Sadly, it’s also relatively well known for its horrific winter weather: cold, dark and dreary. For many students, this means a little bit of a dip in productivity and energy in the winter.
Many may be unaware that they could be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression.
Barbara Myers, Psy.D., said some of her patients are conscious of it and others are not.
“Some people know right away. They’ll say, ‘Every mid-October, I slip into this funk, and about April, when the weather starts to get nice, I’m fine,’” Myers said. “Other people don’t really have a clue, and I think it’s because it’s milder. They might just eat more carbs or sleep more, not really want to go out, that kind of stuff.”
SAD is believed to be caused by a shortage of sunlight and can begin as early as September or late August, said social worker Patricia Kissick.
Catherine Wedge, a community educator from the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, said it is her understanding that Ithaca is one of the worst cities in the U.S. for lack of sunlight.
In fact, according to the Ithaca Times, Ithaca is the 18th cloudiest city in the nation.
People with SAD are advised to use light boxes, a device with fluorescent lights mounted on a metal reflector, though they can vary. Unfortunately, they are very expensive, generally costing at least $100 and sometimes up to $500, depending on size.
Ithaca College’s Center for Health Prommotion offers a light box in their Health Promotion Resource Room, located in the lower level of the Hammond Health Center available daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for anyone without an appointment, said Nancy Reynolds, program director of the center.
“The theory is that the light box mimics outdoor light,” Reynolds said. “By sitting next to the light box, it supposedly creates biochemical changes in the brain similar to what the brain would experience in sunlight.”
Reynolds said a light box is suggested for an average use of 20 to 30 minutes daily. SAD sufferers should start with a maximum of 15 minutes and build their way up to longer periods of time. Light boxes can be used for up to 30 to 45 minutes a day.
Prolonged use will increase the potential for side effects, Reynolds said, which “may include headaches, irritability and eye strain.”
Those purchasing a light box are also advised to look for one that offers the full spectrum of light, which is what will aid with SAD symptoms, Wedge said.
Wedge said another useful tool is the dawn simulator. This device is an alarm clock that simulates a dawn by gradually increasing sunlight starting early in the morning when the sun would be rising in the summer.
For college students who can’t find time to make it into the Resource Room or don’t have money to buy a light box or dawn simulator of their own, Myers suggests getting as much time in the sun as possible.
“Getting outside—even though it looks cloudy and gloomy—you’re going to get some sun out there,” Myers said. “But if you stay inside all of the time, you’re not going to get anything.”
Wedge agrees that getting outside as much as possible is helpful and students should take advantage of breaks from class for travel.
“When you can, on your school vacations, find yourself a way to get to a place where you get more light,” Wedge said.
Even sitting by a window while doing homework can help, Myers said.
Wedge also said sticking to springtime sleep patterns as much as possible in the winter months, despite a desire to oversleep, will help students stay regulated when feeling the effects of SAD, as well as eating a balanced diet. Drinking milk to get enough calcium will help, especially if it is enriched with vitamin D.
“The body manufactures vitamin D in the presence of calcium,” said Wedge. “That’s why, if you drink a lot of milk, you need to make sure you have enough vitamin D so you can absorb the calcium. They’re mutually symbiotic.”
Anyone who believes they may be suffering from SAD is advised to talk to their doctors as opposed to self-diagnosing, Wedge said, because mistaking clinical depression for seasonal depression could severely damage a person’s health.
Lyndsey Lyman is a freshman journalism major who raised her staff to spread the clouds and give us all sun. Thank her at firstname.lastname@example.org.