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What to Do When You’re Singing the Winter Blues

Brian Thompson, PhD, is a licensed psychologist at Portland Psychotherapy Clinic, Research, and Training Center in Portland, Oregon, and he also works at the ...Read More

In the Pacific Northwest where I live, people adore the summers and brace themselves for the gray and drizzly winters. It’s true that some have a genuine appreciation for the rain, but most approach the dwindling sunlight and shorter days with grim resignation. For many, gray days mean less activity and low mood.

We colloquially call this the Winter Blues. The Winter Blues takes many forms. We might groan to ourselves when the alarm goes off in a dark bedroom. Or we start to notice that the sun no longer greets us when we leave work. We may turn to comfort foods with their sweet or starchy goodness.

The Winter Blues is nothing new. We find descriptions of it in writings from the ancient world as far back as Hippocrates. As you might expect, the Winter Bluesis more common in northern latitudes such as Alaska than in sunny Florida.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

In its more severe form, the Winter Blues becomes what’s called Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD). SAD is form of depression that comes and goes with the seasons. (There’s even a small subset of people who become depressed when it’s sunny.) SAD overlaps with depression in a lot of ways. The main thing that distinguishes SAD from other forms of depression-aside from the seasonal pattern-is strong cravings for carbohydrates, which often leads to overeating and weight gain. SAD is much more common in women and is rare in children.

No one is entirely sure why people experience SAD. It appears to have something to so with a desynchronization of our internal clock (aka, circadian rhythms) and release of hormones such as melatonin. This may occur as dawn comes later and later.

So what can we do about SAD?

Light Box Therapy

What’s really interesting about this question is that ancient writers already had an answer for this-light. Unfortunately, most of us can’t fly off to Florida or Australia to recharge during the winter (which can be helpful), but we can purchase gizmos calledlight boxes. Light box therapy is the most researched treatment for the Winter Blues.

An ordinary light bulb won’t do and tanning booths are not only ineffective but give off harmful UV rays. Instead, it’s important to purchase light boxes made specifically for the purpose of light box therapy. If you can’t find any locally, they can be purchased online through retailers such as Amazon. The most important thing is to purchase one specifically made to treat the Winter Blues. There are a number of sham light therapy devices on the market; consequently, read descriptions carefully and use the advice below as a guide on what to look for.

White Light

The most commonly used and best-researched light boxes use broad spectrum white light. These are what I recommend. The optimal light intensity is 10,000 lux. At 10,000 lux, most people benefit from sitting in front of them (approximately 2 feet away) for about a half hour each morning before the sun rises. If your box is less than 10,000 lux, you may need to sit in front of it longer, so read the instructions carefully.

You don’t have to stare directly at the light (no sunglasses, please), but it is important that the light box is situated so that some of the light hits your eyes from above. Most light boxes are big enough that this isn’t a problem.

During your thirty minutes of light therapy, you can read, eat breakfast, or check your email. Once you’re done, you’re good to go. If you want, you can supplement a second 30 minute session in the evening after its dark. Be careful, though, as evening light therapy can increase insomnia. Many people find a benefit to light box therapy within the first week, but give it 3-4 weeks. Anywhere from 60-70% people find it helps with the Winter Blues.

The hardest thing about light box therapy is keeping the schedule. You can possibly skip weekends but try to do it daily. Once you’ve been doing it regularly for 4-5 weeks and have found some benefit, you can try using it for shorter periods of time and see if it still helps (e.g., 15 minutes).

As I mentioned, white light boxes are the best researched, but there are two others worth mentioning.

Blue Light

Short wavelength blue light boxes are smaller and more compact. You can set one at the top of your computer screen, and it’s small enough to travel with. There are some research studies that suggest blue light is every bit as effective as white. However, I caution that this is a newer technology and, while it looks promising, it doesn’t quite have the research backing that white light does.

Dawn Simulator

There is also something called a dawn simulator. It’s sort of a light alarm clock. You set it for a few hours before you typically rise, and it gradually fills the room with light. When you get up, you’re ready to go. There’s some research on dawn simulators but less than white light boxes and even less than blue light boxes. It’ still experimental at this stage, but could be used an as an adjunct to light therapy. Additionally, some people find they like dawn simulators even if it’s only that they don’t have to wake up in total darkness.

Some Other Suggestions

I’ll also mention that seasonal depression responds to antidepressants. Antidepressants tends to be about as effective as light box therapy-60-70% of people find benefit-but people report more side effects with antidepressants. There’s also some promising research that cognitive behavior psychotherapy not only leads to improvements, but prevents relapse the following season.

Conclusion

In summary, if you’re experiencing the Winter Blues, I recommend you try light box therapy, preferably a white light box, although a blue light box may work, too. However, you must be prepared to use the light box regularly. In addition, cognitive behavioral approaches and antidepressants can offer some benefit as well.

Click here for a presentation on SAD.

Keep Reading By Author Brian Thompson, Ph.D.
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