Light Therapy Can Help Those with Seasonal Affective Disorder

By Feulner, Natalie | Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME), November 24, 2014 | Go to article overview

Light Therapy Can Help Those with Seasonal Affective Disorder


Feulner, Natalie, Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME)


When Joy Sinclair of Bangor was 15, she was diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder. As the years went by, during winters the now 33-year-old was unwilling to come out of what she described as "hibernation mode." She was always tired and stayed inside, uninterested in friends or socializing.

Sinclair's reaction to the gray days isn't unusual, especially in the Pine Tree State, where dark, snowy winters last many months. Cliff Singer, chief of geriatric mental health and neuropsychiatry at Acadia Hospital, said as many as 20 percent of Mainers experience some form of seasonal affective disorder, also called "winter depression."

The shorter days coupled with an increase in inclement weather means many people spend more time indoors or recreating in the dark, which can cause serotonin levels to drop and lead to feelings of depression. Symptoms, not unlike those emblematic of clinical depression, include having less energy, craving carbohydrates, having trouble concentrating and an increased need for sleep.

Not the holiday blues

Singer said it is important to remember that true seasonal affective disorder is a diagnosable condition. It is more than just the "holiday blues," he said.

"You have to distinguish it," he said. "It's normal to be bummed out about the weather, but for people with seasonal affective disorder, it's a biochemical hibernation. It has a real effect on serotonin and dopamine production in the brain."

The depression is a biological and intrinsic response to the shortened days, and symptoms begin appearing soon after the September equinox, Singer said. For many, there can be a sense of dread about the upcoming winter and days start getting shorter.

"There can be a psychological dread," Singer said. "Yes, dawn is coming an hour earlier, but psychologically, people are more affected by how early [the dark] comes in the evening."

While many patients diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder experience the same symptoms as those with clinical depression, they are not typically as severe. For example, it is rare for someone to commit suicide based on seasonal affective disorder alone.

At its worst, Singer said, winter depression is marked by low energy and initiative.

Finding a solution

In college, Sinclair started using a "Happy Light," a compact light that provides natural spectrum daylight advertised to improve mood, energy and concentration.

However, she didn't use it consistently and saw little results.

But she was on the right track.

"A light box can be helpful in people who are craving light and have severe enough symptoms to where it affects their quality of life," he said. …

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