Brighten my day!

Posted on Monday, January 18, 2016

Collage of rooms inside uOttawa that get a lot of sunshine.

1. SITE; 2. Hamelin Hall walkway; 3. Fifth floor, Morisset Library; 4. Ground floor, Faculty of Social Sciences; 5. Student lounge, Desmarais Hall; 6. Student lounge, D’Iorio Hall.

By Valérie Charbonneau

It’s winter and all you want to do is curl up and hibernate like an old black bear. Rest assured: your sleepiness is perfectly normal. But what causes this lethargy?

Blame the sun, or rather the diminished intensity of the sun’s rays in winter and its effect on our biological clocks.

“Some researchers believe that this lack of light could be telling our bodies that it’s time to hibernate, that we should be conserving energy during this time of year when nature itself goes to sleep,” says Pierre Gagnon, a professor at the School of Psychology at the University of Ottawa.

But this effect, known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), does not strike equally: young people and women tend to feel the winter blues more keenly. In general, these groups also tend to have higher rates of depression, and Professor Gagnon explains that “this trend holds true for seasonal affective disorder, which is a form of depression.”

As could be expected, rates of SAD tend to increase the further one travels away from the equator. “One study showed that the rate of SAD was 1.4% in Florida in winter, while it was 9.7% for the same time period in New Hampshire,” says Pierre Gagnon.

Overcoming SAD

Light therapy, featuring lamps that mimic the sunlight felt during an outdoor walk, is one way to fight the winter blues.

“Natural sunlight can produce up to 100,000 lux, and light therapy lamps, which generate only about 10,000 lux, do not reproduce the full spectrum or intensity of sunlight. Even so, light from these lamps is sufficient to trigger positive effects in our bodies,” says Pierre Gagnon. 

However, there are drawbacks: these lamps are often expensive and exposure times, which vary between 30 and 120 minutes a day, are significant.

So what’s the best solution? Certainly, going outside and taking in the sun’s rays is ideal, but if you find that your lifestyle is too hectic for this, why not make a point of spending your study periods, breaks or meal times in the many places on campus that are flooded with natural light?

If you think you may be suffering from season affective disorder

- 30 minutes a day of natural light in one of the six recommended areas on campus;

- one hour a day of outdoor activity (such as those taking place during the Snow Festival in January).

(Warning: this treatment plan has not been scientifically validated and does not replace medical advice from a physician!)

In Canada, one person in five will suffer a mental illness of some kind.

If you feel the need to speak to someone or if you want to discuss what’s bothering you, please contact the Counselling and Coaching Service of the Student Academic Success Service (SASS).

Located on the fourth floor of the building at 100 Marie Curie Street (above the campus pharmacy), SASS’s professional counsellors will see you in strictest confidence and are trained to help you face temporary setbacks and develop the skills you need to overcome life’s challenges.

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