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Granite Geek: Seasonal Affective Disorder is Not Just "The Winter Blues"

Zvonimir Cuvalo via Flikr

During winter’s dark months you may feel a little bit down. It’s common for people to feel sadder during the winter months, but that sadness isn’t always considered seasonal affective disorder, which is the official term for depression brought on by the cold winter days.

Concord Monitor reporter David Brooks is hosting Concord's Science Café all about seasonal affective disorder, and spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello about the disorder and how it’s nothing like your typical case of “the winter blues”.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Even if you do feel a little down it’s not necessarily seasonal affective disorder. It’s more than just feeling sad. What else does seasonal affective disorder entail?

Exactly, which is kind of the reason we’re talking about it. It’s sort of a gray area in the sense that a lot of us think of it as “the winter blues”, which is frankly a term that I applied to it. But seasonal affective disorder is officially recognized as sort of a subset of two different mental problems: bipolar disorder and depression itself. Basically, it’s mostly caused by lack of daylight and cold weather that triggers or worsens existing problems.

So it could worsen existing problems such as the two you just mentioned, or are there others that become worse?

Those are the two main ones. Like most psychological issues, there aren’t a whole lot of objective measurements where you read them off a machine and the reading says “17”, therefore you have this disease. There’s a whole bunch of symptoms from things like weight gain and listlessness, to serious actual depression and thoughts of harm. That’s why psychology is so darn complicated, frankly.

So if there’s anybody out there listening right now who says, “You know, I’ve been feeling down these past few months. I think it’s because of these dark winter days,” how can this person tell the difference between just the mild winter blues and a full-blown case of seasonal affective disorder?

There aren’t really a whole lot of alternatives other than to talk to a medical professional or to go to a therapist. We’re going to have a couple therapists as panelists tonight to talk about the issues because as I said, you can’t take a blood test and find out about it. But it’s a real thing. In fact, there’s even a recognized seasonal affective disorder that’s triggered by summertime, although it’s much rarer and less serious.

We respond to the environment around us, and there’s no bigger part of the environment than the amount of daylight and temperature and weather.

One of the popular remedies that I’ve seen is this big light that supposedly emits the same kind of light as the sun as a way to counteract the effect of seasonal affective disorder. Do those work?

Well, that’s certainly a common therapy. So far as I know, it can work. I don’t think it’s a magic pill that will automatically fix it, but you certainly find them in extreme northern climates. They’re standard procedure for schools and places like that. So at the very least it’s part of the solution.

The other part, of course, is moving somewhere where there’s more sunlight and it’s nicer out.

No, you’d never move away from New Hampshire. That is not a potential solution.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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