Depression thrives in winter’s lack of light

Max Rust

University student Jessica Page said as winter progresses, she gets the blues.
“January is the worst. There are no animals running around. It feels like spring is never going to come,” she said.
Page’s seasonal mood swing is common. A University professor said certain people tend to sleep more, crave sweet foods, and socially isolate themselves during winter months. Commonly referred to as the “winter blues,” Seasonal Affective Disorder afflicts millions with symptoms of depression every winter, said Dr. Paul Arbisi, clinical assistant professor in the psychology department.
“There is a significant portion of the population that is adversely affected by the changing of the seasons,” Arbisi said.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a recurring depression that is distinct from other forms because it has an onset in the fall, is continuous throughout the winter, and then spontaneously disappears the following spring.
Arbisi said the affliction lasts from mid-October to late-March for most of his patients, but the time span varies by individuals.
The frequency of the disorder increases with geographic latitude. About 10 percent of Minnesotans will be affected with the disorder. Another 15 to 20 percent more will acquire a milder form of the disorder that exhibits many of the same symptoms, but is not as impairing.
“Everyday living is a chore here,” said Mike Heyburn, an ROTC teacher who moved to Minneapolis two years ago from Australia. “You really have to work hard to live in this type of climate. People are tough up here.”
A self-described “outdoorsy” guy, Heyburn said that although he doesn’t get depressed during the winter, he sees the winter blues affect a lot of people he knows because the cold keeps them indoors.
“There’s not as much stimulation to go outside and visit with people,” he said.
The disorder is unique because it exhibits a characteristic group of symptoms that distinguish it from non-seasonal depression. Called reverse vegetative symptoms, the traits cause a change in a patient’s behavior.
“There is evidence that suggests the changes are insidious, a sort of gradual increase,” Arbisi said. He also pointed out that the behavior changes are primarily associated with energy and fatigue.
“People feel more tired, they’re sleepier, they notice that they want to eat different foods; a particular craving for sweets, things that taste good.”
The winter blues can affect concentration and social behavior as well. Patients become less engaging, more irritable and won’t talk as much. They also don’t get as much pleasure out of things that they normally would, and often become socially isolated.
“Some of these problems are certainly of such an intensity of degree as to cause impairment,” Arbisi said. Patients will notice a drop in their grades or a lack of focus at their job during the winter.
Arbisi said although the precise reason as to why people acquire the disorder is unclear, the origin of the disorder, like many other forms of depression, is biological.
“There is some predisposition, but it’s unclear as to what that predisposition is. We know that on one end, it is clearly precipitated by the lack of sunlight,” he said.
When patients lack sunlight, changes occur in the neurotransmitter systems of their brains, resulting in an affected behavioral pattern.
Despite this, Page said she likes cloudy days because they tend to be warmer.
The most widely used methods for treatment include the use of artificial light, or phototherapy to “trick the body into thinking it’s June,” Arbisi said. This involves sitting in front of a light box for a certain period of time each day, resulting in an exposure to the amount of light generated by the sun 15 minutes after dawn.
Other forms of phototherapy included light visors that patients can mount on their heads, and the modality method, which is like a light box, but used by patients to simulate the rising and the setting of the sun.
Arbisi recommends, however, that people who get the winter blues should consult a doctor before purchasing an artificial light apparatus, because the method does not work for everyone.
The disorder is usually self-reported. If an individual thinks they might be affected, they should set up an interview with a doctor to identify the best treatment.