For many, winter is like this: get up in the dark, drive to work in the dark, spend all day in a building deprived of sunlight, then drive home in the dark. Common sense would tell you that this is a recipe for misery. And in this case, common sense is backed up by science. Seasonal Affective Disorder is the psychological term for getting depressed (or in some cases manic) at certain times of year, most commonly winter. It’s more rampant in some places than others. According to a 1990 study, only 1.4 percent of Floridians experience SAD. The same study showed that almost 10 percent of residents of New Hampshire suffered from it. Because of the more dramatic shifts in day/night cycles farther from the equator, misery increases with latitude.
Sure enough, this Wednesday, December 21, the winter solstice, is the shortest day of the year in terms of sunlight. New Jersey will only get nine hours and 18 minutes of sunlight, almost six hours less than it gets in the long days of June. To make matters worse for morning people, the sun will rise later in the days through January 7, when it does not rise until 7:22 in the morning, four minutes later than on December 21.
To have SAD is worse than just feeling a lack of energy or down in the dumps at certain times of year. Symptoms of SAD include overwhelming lethargy, trouble waking up, overeating, gaining weight, and craving junk food. Putting on 10-20 pounds for the winter is not uncommon. SAD can also include feeling like “hibernating” to the point where sufferers withdraw socially. Women and young adults are most at risk. Researchers say January and February are the worst months for SAD.
SAD is a workplace liability issue for employers as well as a personal one. In 2010 a Wisconsin teacher with SAD successfully sued her school district under the Americans with Disabilities Act because her requests to move to a classroom with exterior windows were denied. She claimed that teaching in a windowless basement classroom was so bad that she became suicidally depressed and quit her job.
Scientists believe the biological clock plays a role in creating SAD. A lack of natural light can affect the brain chemicals that control sleep and wakefulness, and which are also involved in mood.
Fortunately, there are ways to combat the disorder.
In the 1980s, “light box therapy” was invented as a treatment for SAD and is still by far the most popular remedy. The treatment involves exposure to an artificial fluorescent white light that is 20 times brighter than normal indoor lighting. The therapy is normally administered just after waking up, but one study found it was just as effective if used in the workplace. Hanging an artificial daylight lamp over a desk can be a passable substitute for real daylight.
Antonia C. Fried, a psychologist in private practice at 20 Nassau Street in Princeton says another good way to stave off the winter blues is to get outside on lunch breaks.
“In the winter, nobody goes and takes a walk on their lunch break, so people actually isolate more,” she says. “So kind of pushing yourself and embracing winter more is important to do. Doing whatever you can to get sunlight is important.”
Yes, it’s cold out, but as the old saying goes, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” A brisk walk won’t kill you if you’re wearing a good jacket, hat, and gloves.
Fried says getting out and about in the winter is a great way to combat the sluggishness that comes with being in the dark for many hours a day.
According to the National Institutes of Health, psychotherapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy, has also been effective against SAD. This type of therapy trains patients to identify negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones, and to find and do enjoyable things to cope with the gloomy season.
Exercise has been shown to improve symptoms of SAD, so employers might be able to give workers a boost by providing a workout space. However, as psychologist Michael Terman, director of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at New York Presbyterian Hospital, noted in an article for Psychology Today, “People with depression typically lack the motivation to exercise.”
In addition to these old standards, scientists have been testing exotic cures for the winter blahs. Dawn simulators are lights that start dim in the morning and gradually increase in brightness. Some studies show them to be as effective as light box therapy. The pharmaceutical industry has offered a cure in the form of Wellbutrin, a smoking aid and antidepressant that recently became the first FDA-approved drug to treat SAD. Scientists are also studying whether highly ionized air can treat depression and SAD.
On the bright side, there is another surefire cure for SAD: the passage of time. Beginning Sunday, January 8, the sun will rise a little earlier every morning and set a little later each day. Net result: a little more sunlight.