Shedding a light on stress in seasonal changes

Kodee Christensen

The Washburn community’s atmosphere is shifting with the seasons, and people are handling it in different ways.

Fall is in full swing and those of us in the Northern hemisphere are reaping the benefits of cooler weather and fall festivities. However, like all good things, fall must eventually come to an end which will mark the beginning of winter. As seasons come and go, especially these in the cooler months, more than just the leaves change. Our mood and emotions are often affected by factors ranging from midterms to sunlight exposure.

“In pure SAD (seasonal affective disorder), we don’t tend to see the most severe depression come out of that until February, even March, but for people who have that condition, they may be starting to feel some changes related to the changes in the amount of sunlight we’re getting,” said Crystal Leming, LPN and director of Counseling Services at Washburn.

Linzi Gibson, associate professor of psychology at Washburn, summarized the reasoning behind the sun’s effects on us.

“Generally when exposed to the sun, your skin can manufacture its own vitamin D,” said Gibson. “Vitamin D is actually a hormone, not a vitamin, and it regulates over 900 genes that we know of, a large number of which regulate brain development and function. With respect to our mood, vitamin D regulates genes that synthesize serotonin. Research suggests that vitamin D deficiency can lead to lower levels of serotonin in the central nervous system and increase the risk of depression.”

As summer transitions into fall, the sun rises later in the morning and sets earlier in the evening, leaving us with fewer hours of sunlight in the day. While the change is gradual, its effects are varied among different people.

“Once we’ve adjusted to that lower level of light, most people tend to bounce back,” said Leming. “For college students though, that tends to happen at the same time of year as other pressures are increasing, so they don’t tend to experience that same kind of bounce back primarily because other things in their lives have continued to compound.”

Cindy Turk, Ph.D., chair of the psychology department, provided insight into what kind of effects this inability or struggle to bounce back may have on college students specifically.

“When it comes to things like depression and anxiety, these are states that we all experience. Part of the human condition is to experience times of sadness, to experience times of worry, to experience times of anxiety,” said Turk. “However, what psychologists look for is when the person is having those experiences and they’re lasting long enough or are intense enough that they’re starting to cause the person a problem in their life.”

These problems may manifest themselves in the form of decreased classroom or job performance or issues in relationships, among other things.

“Now more than ever, the stigma [around mental health] seems to be resolving, but that doesn’t mean that it’s gone,” said Leming. “There’s definitely still some hesitation to seek services.”

Both Leming and Turk expressed encouragement for students to seek help and start small if they’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed.

“If a person has been withdrawing, you don’t need to start with something like a great big huge party,” said Turk. “Start with something small and manageable and see how it feels.”

Leming shared similar encouragement.

“Students don’t have to wait until things are really bad,” said Leming. “There’s no minimal level of difficulty a person has to be experiencing before they’re eligible for services.”

For anyone intimidated by what to expect when visiting counseling services, Leming shared the sentiment that a visit can look as simple as having a conversation with someone in a comfortable environment.

“We’re going to provide a lot of support and encouragement while they start building small, sustainable changes and start growing those over time,” said Leming. “Just like with anything else, the faster you intervene, the faster you will feel better. That being said, we’re never going to shame somebody for having a condition that has gotten more severe.”

In addition to seeking counsel, both Turk and Leming shared the importance of focusing on wellness in every area of your life.

“One of the major treatments for a low mood or depression is called behavioral activation,” said Turk. “That treatment is based on the idea that one of the things that helps us to maintain a positive mood is positive reinforcement.”

Leming listed aspects of wellness such as physical exercise, evaluating relationships, getting enough sleep, eating well and seeking balance in general, which can all be ways to experience positive reinforcement and improved mood.

Washburn students have access to free counseling services right here on campus. If you or someone you know is experiencing any level of difficulty during this season or any other time or you want to talk to someone about anything from help with scheduling classes to thoughts of harm, reach out through any of the ways below.

Counseling Services: Kuehne Hall Suite 200, Monday- Friday 8 a.m. – 5 p.m., 785-670-3100

Counseling by phone 24 hours a day: 785-670-3100 option 2 (available in over 200 languages, including ASL)

Drop In Appointments: Wednesdays 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. 

Edited by Jackson Woods, Jessica Galvin, Adam White