Junior Hassina Barry awoke at 8 a.m., while the sky was still dim. This was no surprise, since only 161 days of the year are sunny in Rochester, according to City-Data, a statistics website. Barry herself grew up far from the dark winters of Rochester—born and raised in Guinea, she attended high school in Singapore, and aside from American politics, the only thing that really caught Barry off-guard about the U.S. was the lack of sun during the winter months.
In hindsight, Barry now knows that attending UR means having 10 fewer sunny days per year than the average 171 in Spokane, Washington, where she spent two years before transferring to Rochester. Barry says that the lack of sun in the Rochester winter makes her feel down.
Many of us have felt the same way, stricken with a case of the Winter Blues. We might feel sad, tired, unmotivated, or maybe even cranky for what seems like no reason. According to the Association of American Family Physicians, every winter 25 million Americans experience more than just a winter slump; they experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Since SAD can affect your appetite, weight, energy level, sex drive, sleep patterns, sleep quality, concentration, creativity, and mood, it’s clear why this would be worrisome to college students.
The symptoms of SAD resemble those of clinical depression, except for their temporary nature; once the sun comes out for spring and the snow clears out, the symptoms of SAD clear as well. Areas like Rochester are more at risk because the winters are overcast and gloomy. Even when the sun is out during winter, our skin is covered with warm layers, blocking the sun rays from reaching our skin. This leads to lower levels of serotonin, a chemical in the brain that has been linked to maintaining proper mood balance.
I met up with Barry at 9 a.m., and after getting some breakfast, we were on our way to University Health Services to check out one of UCC’s tools for beating Winter Blues: Light Therapy with a SunBox. Arriving at the office that morning, Barry and I had grand ideas in mind. Our imaginations were running wild, filled with sunny saunas, sun beds, or some dream-like image of the two of us frolicking through heavenly, sunlit clouds.
“This is it?” Barry said, dropping her backpack into a chair. “I think there’s something missing.” The two of us found ourselves standing in front of a lamp. Not a wall sized lamp, or a tanning bed, but a foot-and-a-half tall, lopsided, white lamp.
I plugged it in. The lamp emitted a bright glow. The two of us sat in front of the thing, staring as if we’d been exposed to some extraterrestrial creature.
I tried to ease the mood by turning on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” and soon enough, we were listening to Trevor Noah’s sweet voice, finishing up coursework, and most importantly, soaking up fake sunrays.
Sitting in front of a lamp felt a little silly, but studies prove that two weeks of short morning treatments in front of a “SunBox” lamp can do wonders for your mood. Patients begin to feel a “satisfactory antidepressant response to treatment” within 30 minutes of treatment, and the University Counseling Center says “you can bring a book, homework, or just sit and relax while using the box at our office,” or even watch TV, like Barry and I did.
Light Therapy can be also be used to help deal with circadian rhythm sleep disorders, in which one’s sleep-wake cycle is out of sync with their day-night cycle; Delayed sleep phase disorder, an inability to fall asleep until very late at night, with the resulting need to sleep late in the morning or into the afternoon; and non-24-hour sleep-wake disorder (also known as “Free-Running Disorder”), a condition in which a person’s circadian clock is significantly longer than 24 hours. Any of these should be diagnosed by your doctor, and should you decide to use Light Therapy regularly, a clinician should follow your progress.
So, whether you want to try out Light Therapy or wait out winter, let’s hope Annie’s famous words are correct: The sun will come out tomorrow.