Battling winter doldrums

Author: Jordan Gamble ’11

Gray moods match gray skies for a reason.

Wendy Settle, the staff psychologist at Notre Dame’s University Counseling Center (UCC), says maybe 1 to 2 percent of campus suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression often found in the cloudy parts of middle latitudes where sunlight hours decrease in the winter. Symptoms include irritability, fatigue and an increased craving for fattening simple carbohydrates like sugary sodas, juices, candies and cakes.

“When the days are shorter, especially in the morning, you’re not getting the light you need,” Settle says. Early morning sunlight sends signals to the pineal gland that shuts off melatonin, a chemical that induces sleepiness.

While actual Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real problem, many more suffer from what can best be called the “winter blues,” a milder reaction to the lack of sunlight.

When Notre Dame renovated its student health center in 2006, the UCC set up an Inner Resource Room to give students self-help tools to counter stress. The room on the third floor of Saint Liam’s Hall features a massage chair; biofeedback technology to monitor heart rate; and a light box, a lamp that simulates sunlight.

The light box gets the most attention. It’s a tabletop lamp with 10,000 lux light power, so bright it’s like sitting on a beach in the middle of the morning. (For comparison, an incandescent bulb generally has only 150 lux.)

It’s popular, Settle says, because students can sit in front of it for 30 minutes while doing homework, listening to music or eating, and they can feel real results. Initials fill in nearly every time slot on the sign-up sheet, with about 50 more visitors in February than September, records show.

However, using the light box is not a panacea. About 75 to 80 percent of users do respond well to light therapy, Settle says. She adds, however, that it’s also important to pursue all-around good health: regular exercise and a diet that emphasizes complex carbs, omega-3, magnesium, vitamin C and — instead of a trip to the vending machine — maybe even some dark chocolate.