A Crash Course in Seasonal Depression (When the Seasons Make You Crash)

By Raegan Boettcher

Art by Maanasi Shyno


When I moved to campus in September of 2020, I recall hearing a myriad of vague warnings about how cold the winters in Hanover could be and how little the sun shines in the dead of December and January. I never took it too seriously, convincing myself that it couldn’t possibly be as awful as everyone claimed. Despite all my refusals to lend weight to these concerns, I ended up spending almost the entirety of my freshman winter holed up in my room wondering why my brain wouldn’t work the way I needed it to, why hanging out with my friends didn’t even really make me happy, and why even just getting out of bed required an Olympic effort. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that I was struggling with seasonal depression.

Seasonal depression looks different for everybody, but it is usually characterized by the same symptoms as other forms of depression: loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy, changes in appetite, and change in sleep patterns (exacerbated by the lack of daylight).[1] Like other forms of depression, it is not always clear to yourself that what you’re experiencing isn’t quite right. The trickiest part about seasonal depression is that your whole body screams to crawl into bed and hide from the world, but that’s the last thing you need. For me, I started falling behind on my coursework and gradually stopped going to classes. My situation was partly impacted by Dartmouth’s strict COVID-19 regulations last winter — but unfortunately, a nearly-normal campus this winter can’t fix everything.

For those of you who have never spent a winter in the New England area (or another equally desolate place), I want you to be prepared for these new feelings that you may not be entirely equipped to deal with. Sometimes, it doesn’t fully register how much you miss the feeling of the sun warming your face until you experience the first day of clear, 70 degree weather after four months of dreadful winter. You don’t register how sad and numb you have been until you start finally feeling something again. It's important to note that, if you have prior history with depression or other mood disorders like I do, you are more likely to experience seasonal depression.[2] My prior history made it especially difficult for me to differentiate between my usual struggles and the added burden of Hanover winters.

Struggling with seasonal depression is nothing to be ashamed of; there's no reason to be angry with yourself when your body is reacting to changing seasons with less and less daylight every day. Almost nothing is more evolutionarily natural. Although it is scary, it is nothing to be afraid of, but keep in mind some things you can do to help yourself through this. If on some random, cold, and snowy day, you find yourself wanting to just curl back up in bed and hide away, or find that you can't find the motivation to finish that problem set, I encourage you to take a step back and give yourself space to feel what you're feeling. Instead of becoming frustrated with yourself, take stock of your emotions and give yourself time to work through them. Emotions are messy, and dedicating some time to parsing through them can help to clarify the root of your struggles. From here, you can begin to seek out solutions.

Maybe you just have a mild case of the winter blues or midterm stress is getting you down, but if you feel that you may be struggling with something a little more serious, then that's okay too. There's a silver lining to all of this: you are not alone and there is no shortage of resources available to you.

The first step, and perhaps the most important, is reaching out to talk to someone. This could be a close personal friend, your mom, your dad, or other guardian, any trusted person with whom you can openly discuss your concerns. Sometimes this can be the most difficult part, but for me, talking to my close friends about my struggles with depression is what motivated me to seek out further help. It’s always nice to know that someone is in your corner while you navigate this unsteady territory.

If you feel that, for any reason, professional help isn’t in the cards for you, there are a few alternative options that don’t require any official attention or diagnosis. One option to consider are sun lamps, which have been shown to help alleviate symptoms of seasonal depression. Sun lamps can also help to reset your sleep schedule if the short winter days are preventing you from sleeping well. Getting up a little bit earlier in the day, soon after the sun rises, can also help offset this problem. Try establishing a good, realistic routine for yourself to stay on top of your academic responsibilities without overwhelming yourself. Humans are social creatures at heart; though we often love to isolate ourselves, we need other people to thrive, so making an effort to grab lunch or study in the library with someone is a great option. It’s startling how much better you can feel after just making some light conversation with someone. You can try going out on occasional walks, doing some morning yoga to get your body moving and your blood flowing, putting on a face mask and watching your favorite movie or Netflix series — all small, basic things that you can do to center yourself a little bit and give yourself some time to settle your emotions. It seems small, but no time that you take caring for yourself is wasted.

If you are open to seeking professional help, then reaching out to Dick’s House Counseling Center can also be a good first step. Admittedly, Dick’s House isn’t the most helpful resource, but reaching out can be better than struggling silently. There are also many counselors and therapists in the Hanover area that may be able to help you if you feel that Dick’s House isn’t fulfilling your needs. Alternative methods are a great option, but sometimes there is no replacement for professional guidance.

College is already hard; there’s no use making it more difficult by not attending to your own struggles. Even if you’re like me and tend to stubbornly ignore the advice people give you, I hope that you keep this in the back of your mind just in case. One day, when you’re simmering in those winter blues, trying to kick your mind back into gear, think of this. Remember to have patience with yourself and dedicate time to processing your emotions. Your brain is doing the best that it knows how — be kind to yourself.






 

[1] “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD),” American Psychiatric Association, October 2020, https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder

[2] “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” National Institute of Mental Health, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/seasonal-affective-disorder