Shedding Light on Winter Depression

By Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Thirty days hath September,
April, June and November,
All the rest have thirty-one
Except for February—
Which has 258!

We extend our apologies to the writer of this clever children’s rhyme for tampering with the last line. But for those of us who live up North, February is the teaser month. Once the busy-ness and the shopping and the visiting and the activity and the lights (especially the lights) of December are over, the dark seems really to set in. Somehow, psychologically, we think that half the winter is over with the celebration of the New Year. It’s not. Not even close. It’s been cold since late October and it’s likely to be cold—even snowing—until April. The afterglow of the holidays and even the decorations may last through much of January. But then February comes. Far from being a harbinger of spring, its coming means we’re only halfway there to warmth and light again. Its scarcity of days doesn’t help. It feels like the longest month of the year!

For those with “winter” depression, known as seasonal affective disorder or “SAD,” mid-winter is especially hard. Not only do they experience the symptoms of more general depression like sadness, a loss of energy, and irritability, they also may develop a craving for sugars and starches and experience a marked weight gain. The sadness in SAD typically begins in the fall or winter and ends in the spring. This type of seasonal depression is diagnosed as SAD only if it occurs during two or more winters. Not surprisingly, it is more and more common the farther away a person lives from the equator. Women seem more susceptible and it does tend to run in families.

Causes and Treatment of Winter Depression

Although there are a number of competing theories, it is generally believed that winter depression occurs in some people when they do not have sufficient exposure to sunlight. For this reason, the most common treatment for winter depression is “phototherapy,” or exposing the eyes each day to bright artificial light built into a special type of visor, lamp, or light box. Treatment administered in the morning, to mimic the natural beginning of the day, seems to be more effective than other times. The treatment appears to work for children and adolescents as well as adults.

 

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2006). Shedding Light on Winter Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/shedding-light-on-winter-depression/000332
Scientifically Reviewed
    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.