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What is Evanston Doing to Our Mood?

I think we can all agree it feels like winter ended overnight.  On Thursday, March 5, the high was 19 degrees, and then on Saturday, March 7, a beautiful 46 degrees seemed to come out of nowhere.  All of a sudden, there were people walking and running outside, the library was empty, and there was an actual line at Jamba Juice.  When the sun came out, so did our energy, and with such a huge shift in weather, it is easy to question what happened to us over winter.  The sun has such an affect on our minds and behavior, and there is no better proof than our lift in energy over the last couple of days. 

Humor me for a minute: try to think of a movie that ends on a rainy day.  When the main character is sad and lonely, it is pouring rain, while in the final climactic moments, it’s sunny and beautiful.  We are trained through romantic comedies to associate weather with mood, but to what extent is this actually true?  Our mood is inherently linked to the seasons, and winter is an especially rough one.  This last quarter, many of us strengthened our relationship with Netflix and our bed.  Because of the lack of sunshine, it was hard to get out of bed in the morning and find the motivation to be active and social.  The first thing you should know is this is normal, and we have all experienced it.


In order to fully understand this subject, I spoke to Robin Nusslock, a professor here at Northwestern, and the director of the Affective & Clinical Neuroscience Laboratory.  Professor Nusslock studies mood and anxiety disorders, and I highly recommend taking one of his classes.  Professor Nusslock justifies our reaction to winter by noting that, “there is research to suggest that you have variation in mood within the day, and you have normative variation in mood over the course of the seasons.”  Some of us may be more affected by weather, but Professor Nusslock claims that, “most everyone on some level will be affected by seasonal variation.”  We as individuals, vary to such an extent that there is an actual disorder for the extreme deviation of these changes in mood.  This disorder is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (…yes, the abbreviation is SAD), and it is a type of depression due to the change in seasons.


Evanston’s biopolar weather can be a lot to handle, but what exactly is causing this?  Profesor Nusslock attributes our change in mood to two different causes.  The first cause of this is the restriction of people’s social routines.  “You are more constrained to your house, and more constrained to routinized means of walking from point A to point B.  You are not stopping and lying on the grass; you have an objective to get inside, and as a result, there is more social isolation because there is less social activity and gatherings outside.”  Think about it: how much time have you really spent outside this winter?  During winter, our goal is to get everywhere as quickly as possible, so our faces don’t freeze.  We begin to recognize people by their boots and jackets, because we hardly look up to take in our surroundings.


While this has a huge effect on our mood, “it turns out that what really drives the effect of weather on people’s mood is called the photoperiod, which pertains to the amount of time that the sun is up during the day.  It is really a light issue, and not just related to it being cold.”  The shortest day of the year was December 22, and the longest will be June 21; we have been living through shortened days of sunlight these last few weeks.  Professor Nusslock says our brains have a “neurobiological process by which the photoperiod modulates the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the brain.  This is the region of the brain that controls your circadian clock and also modulates the release of a hormone called melatonin, which plays an important role in the sleep/wake cycle.”  This truly isn’t our fault or a choice, and Netflix shows have not gotten any more interesting, making us want to stay in.  Rather, our changes in mood are driven by how our brains are wired to react to the lack of light.

“And at last I see the light”

The weather affects us both biologically and psychologically, and often times, we are not even aware.  However, we can counter or at least mitigate that impact by taking better care of ourselves.  Professor Nusslock says one way to help improve our moods is through, “a light lamp, which has been shown to work in creating UV light that corresponds to the light of the sun.”  This helps us regulate the photoperiod Professor Nusslock mentioned, and allows us to take some degree of control over our moods.  College is a time of intense change, and we are learning to be independent.  As women, we should take responsibility for our health, and Professor Nusslock suggests three ways of doing this:

1.  “Set realistic goals and have some compassion.  There is going to be variation in mood and that is okay, and not the end of the world.”

2.  “Be committed and make it a priority to take care of yourself and get active.”

3.  “Work together as a group, so you have people checking up on you and supporting you.”

Professor Nusslock also suggests, “mechanisms or behaviors that counter depression in general would be very adaptive, such as working out.  Maintaining an exercise routine, maintaining social connections, and using behavioral activation techniques would be productive for maintaining biological and behavioral activation.”  If we have the power to control our moods in some way, we should take the initiative and make it a priority.  We need to learn to take care of our minds, just as we take care of our bodies.  How about in addition to getting our spring bodies ready, we get our spring minds ready as well?


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Lina Hebert


Lina Hebert is a rising junior at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.  She is currently majoring in pyschology with the intention of going into marketing.  Through Her Campus and other organizations, she has gained valuable experience with writing, social media and event planning.  However, Lina's interests are not only limited to psychology and marketing; she was the fourth spoon from the left in Beauty and the Beast at age ten.  She is an inspired and devoted student, learner, blogger and nutella enthusiast.
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