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Depression Health Center

Winter Darkness, Season Depression

Winter depression is still a mystery to scientists who study it. But researchers agree that people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder are particularly sensitive to light, or the lack of it.
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Arctic Winters

In Fairbanks, Alaska, in the dead of winter, less than four hours separate sunrise and sunset. With so little sunlight, it seems like no one could escape winter depression; but in fact, many Alaskans fare just fine. One study found that about 9% of Fairbanks residents had seasonal affective disorder. That's about the same percentage another study found in New Hampshire.

Mark D., who lives near Fairbanks, says he doesn't suffer from seasonal affective disorder, even though he rarely sees the sun. He pulls 12-hour shifts working in a power plant.

He stays active in winter, so "cabin fever" isn't a problem for him, either. "If you sit around the house and do nothing all day I suppose it could eat at you," he says. "But there is always something for me to do -- snow-machine, cut firewood ... or just going into town and have a cup of coffee with friends at the cafe.

"There are people, though, that will have a ten-yard stare in a five-yard room," he says. Some seek comfort from a bottle, too. "In lots of the smaller villages, that does happen. Drinking is a big problem."

Seasonal affective disorder researcher Michael Terman, PhD, at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, offers some possible explanations for why seasonal affective disorder isn't more common in the arctic. For one, people with seasonal affective disorder may be genetically predisposed to clinical depression and light sensitivity. Most people, in any place, wouldn't have both genetic traits. "Another way to look at it is that those are the people who are still in Alaska," he says. People who can't cope might not stay.

But not everyone affected by seasonal changes has full-blown seasonal affective disorder, so estimates of how many people do have it may be low. "Winter depression is a spectrum of severity," Lewy says. You may have trouble getting up, have bouts of fatigue during the day, or feel compelled to overeat, without feeling depressed.

These symptoms can be treated with the same therapy given to seasonal affective disorder patients. Bright light -- generated by a special light box that's much brighter than a normal lamp -- is the first option. It's proven to work, but not for everyone. Also, the right time for it differs from person to person, Terman says. For a night owl, taking light therapy too early could make seasonal affective disorder worse.

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