In Stress and Coping

How Does Winter Influence Our Mood?

In psychology, some emotional disturbances do seem tied to seasons of the year. The most usual pattern is a depressive episode that begins in the late fall and ends with the beginning of spring. People with winter depression tend towards excessive sleep and increased appetite and weight gain. Emerging evidence suggests that winter depression might be related to daily and seasonal changes in the production of melatonin, a hormone secreted by the pineal gland. Because exposure to light suppresses melatonin production, it is produced only at night. One possibility of winter depression incidence is increased level of melatonin, and another possibility is that circadian rhythms related to our mood are delayed in winter.

Many people leaving in extreme northern and southern latitudes, where there is less winter sunlight, are troubled by “winter blues”. A popular name for this type reaction is cabin fever. This state has been found to be quite stable. One study reported that 86% of a group of 59 patients experienced a depressive episode each winter during a 9-year period of observation, with only 14% recovering during that time. For 44% of these patients, depressive episodes began to occur during other seasons as well.

Some clinicians reasoned that exposure to bright light might slow melatonin production. In this type of therapy that is known as phototherapy, the exposure to 2 hours of very bright light immediately on awakening, the patients begin to notice a lifting of mood within 3 to 4 days and a remission of winter depression in 1 to 2 weeks. However, some patients reported such side effects as experiencing headaches or eyestrain or just feeling “wired”. Phototherapy is relatively new, but recent studied strongly support its effectiveness.

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