Tuesday, November 20, 2018
Law students about to head into their final exams -- especially those in their first year, facing this challenge for the first time -- are often weary, anxious, and despondent. Simultaneously burdened with too much to learn and too little time, they may feel like the universe is conspiring against them. And some of them, in a sense, may be right.
The tilt of the Earth's axis and its movement around the Sun are responsible for our seasons, and, by chance or design, fall semester exams take place just as we are sliding into the winter solstice -- the day on which we in the Northern Hemisphere have the shortest day and receive the least amount of sunlight. Two years ago, when I was teaching in Southern California, we received just under 10 hours of daylight on the solstice (December 21). Now that I'm teaching in Buffalo, New York, we're already down to only 9 1/2 hours of daylight, and we'll get down to only 9 hours of light and 15 hours of darkness before the sun starts coming back. It is little wonder that folks in the higher latitudes experience more instances of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a recognized mood disorder in which sufferers experience mood distortions -- most commonly, depression -- at particular times of the year. Most commonly, these symptoms peak in the wintertime, and while the causes are not well understood, it seems very likely that the diminished amount of sunlight is a key trigger. This may explain why SAD affects 8-10% of the population in states like New Hampshire and Alaska, but only 2% of the population in Florida. Overall, about 6% of U.S. adults suffer from full-blown SAD, and another 14% suffer a milder, "subsyndromal" version. This means that, on the average, one out of every five people -- including your students -- are clinically affected by the oncoming gloom.
When SAD manifests, as it usually does, as a type of depression, its symptoms (and those of its milder variant) are those of depression, including low energy and motivation, feelings of helplessness, withdrawal from social interaction, oversleeping, and difficulty concentrating or making decisions. Any one of these symptoms would be a serious obstacle to success on final exams. To have to bear a whole cluster of these decisions, on top of the intensity, stress, and anxiety normally experienced in law school, can be potentially debilitating.
Thus, it is important for Academic Success educators to observe their students with particular care as the autumn gloom descends. Students who had seemed poised and optimistic in September might start to appear morose, scattered, or resigned as finals approach. Of course, finals themselves can have a depressive effect, and after a semester of hard work, even the most buoyant student might be observed to sink a bit. That is normal. But if a student seems to be so down that it is pervasively affecting the quality of their work, consider offering the following suggestions:
- Light: One reason that the diminished rays of the sun are felt to be a key trigger is the strong evidence that light therapy -- regular additional exposure to direct sunlight or to specially-made artificial lamps -- has a beneficial effect. Spending additional time outdoors can provide the necessary sunlight supplement -- if winter clouds do not interfere. If the weather doesn't cooperate, light therapy lamps can be purchased online or in department and specialty stores for less than $50. Either way, 30 to 60 minutes of extra light every day -- something that might be easily done while studying -- often helps SAD victims recover (particularly when combined with other treatments, as listed below).
- Exercise: Moderate aerobic exercise also appears to be helpful, particularly in combination with light therapy. A walk outdoors or a 20-minute run on a treadmill under the glow of a light therapy lamp provides better relief than just light alone. Exercise provides other benefits to students approaching the finals ordeal. Regular workouts can alleviate stress and improve concentration, so a student with SAD who exercises and uses a light therapy lamp every day may actually end up in a better position than they were before they were affected by SAD.
- Professional treatment: Students contending with a particularly nasty manifestation of SAD -- one that does not improve with light therapy and exercise, and that causes feelings of worthlessness or thoughts of self-harm, or prevents a student from attending class or from undertaking basic preparation for exams -- should be referred or encouraged to seek professional help. Counselors can provide talk therapy, and physicians can prescribe drugs that, in conjunction with exercise and/or light therapy, may provide additional help in overcoming SAD.
The good news is that, since SAD is seasonal, almost everyone suffering from it in November will probably get over it by February, as the days start to lengthen after Christmas passes. But to help them get to that place, we sometimes have to help students recognize that they are suffering from a treatable condition, and we have to help them find the solution that works for them.