Surviving SAD season

Bright lights, staying active can ward off winter weariness

Posted: Sunday, January 09, 2005


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  Students learn self defense in a Soldotna Community Schools class. Kenai Peninsula College also offers educational outlets during the winter months. Clarion file photo by M. Scott M

Cheryl L. G. Cummings relaxes in front of a pair of full-spectrum lights in a room at Curves for Women in Soldotna. She said she uses the lights at least three times a week to keep her spirits up during the winter. "I don't think I feel it right away," she said. "But I'm always happy. Being from Connecticut, I'm used to seeing the sun."

Photo by M. Scott Moon

It's the middle of winter. The days are short, the nights are long and the landscape is cloaked under several feet of snow.

From the falling of the first flakes in October, some Kenai Peninsula residents lament the dropping temperatures and dwindling hours of daylight that lie ahead.

At first, these folks may read books to break up the monotony, watch television to relieve the boredom or listen to music to cope with the cabin fever, but as the days grow shorter, their winter blues get worse.

By January, these folks can barely drag themselves out of bed in the morning. They feel a sense of sadness that's overwhelming and relationships at work and home are suffering — signs that full-blown depression has set in. Does this scenario sound familiar?

If it does, you are likely one of the estimated 10 million Americans suffering from the condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, often appropriately referred to as SAD.

"SAD is a form of depression that is seasonally linked," said Pam Hays, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology at Central Peninsula Counseling Services in Kenai.

First noted before 1845, but not officially named until the early 1980s, SAD is believed to be linked to the amount of sunlight a person receives.

Sunlight effects the seasonal activity patterns of animals, such as bears that go into to hibernation at the first signs of winter, and so, too, are the "internal clocks" of humans affected. As such, SAD can occur anytime of year, but is more common in winter.

"In Alaska, it's the end of October or early November that people begin to notice symptoms," Hays said.

The condition may peak around January and SAD affects may last up until March or April.

SAD can affect people of any age, but the most common age of onset is when people are in their 30s. SAD can affect both genders but it is more common in women, Hays said. About 70 to 80 percent of diagnosed cases of SAD are in women.

To determine whether symptoms are a result of SAD, Hays suggests visiting the family physician for a medical evaluation as a good way to whittle down the root cause of the depression.

"Medical evaluations can rule out anemia, thyroid problems and other conditions that could mimic depression, but will take a different course of treatment than counseling," she said.

The second step after receiving a physically clean bill of health is to visit a mental health professional to look at the behavioral aspects of the depression, Hays said.

"The mental health professional can look at what the symptoms are, and when and how often the symptoms are occurring to see if they are seasonally linked," she said.

"Chances are if the symptoms set in at the same time, year after year, but by summer you feel better, you may be suffering from SAD," Hays said.

These symptoms are many, and although some are glaringly obvious from the onset, others may not be easy to detect.

"Depressed mood or affect can be one of the main symptoms," Hays said.

The two differ in that a depressed mood is what the person feels, while a depressed affect is what is observed by others, such as parents, spouses or co-workers.


Art and entertainment events are attractive winter diversions.

Clarion file photo by Jay Barret

"Irritability is another symptom, as are changes in sleeping patterns, decreased energy levels, appetite changes with weight loss or gain, decreased interest or pleasure in activities, difficulty concentrating or mild memory problems, feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt, and-or recurrent thoughts of death," Hays said.

She added that the symptoms can vary from person to person, or even over time within one person, such as starting out with mild symptoms in the fall, but becoming progressively more depressed as winter deepens.

Hays said she looks for at least five or more of these symptoms over a two-week period to make a SAD diagnosis. Also, at least one of the symptoms must be having a depressed mood or affect, or a decreased interest or pleasure in activities that has caused significant distress or impairment in their lives.

As SAD sufferers identify their ailment and begin to seek ways to cope with the condition, Hays recommends meeting with a mental health professional to develop an effective and individualized course of action. Psychiatrists can even prescribe antidepressants or other medications to cope with severe cases of SAD.

"Counseling can really help," she said.

Hays said this is particularly true for identifying and redirecting negative thinking patterns that can lead to depression.

"An example would be when someone does something wrong and they think to themselves 'I'm so stupid.' It would be far better for the person to think 'I made a mistake, but I'll try better next time,'" she said.

Psychologists and other behavioral specialists can address environmental factors that contribute to SAD. Exercise, diet and social support all can play a role.

"The more social support you have, the more stress you can handle. People need to get out and connect with other people," Hays said.

Also, as SAD is believed to be linked to seasonal variations of light, phototherapy often can aid in the road to recovery.

"Getting more light is important," Hays said. "You definitely don't want to be sitting around in the dark in winter."

Also, Hays said light intensity, not spectrum, is the variable most critical for obtaining an antidepressant effect. Light therapy has proven effective in up to 85 percent of diagnosed cases.

"Halogen and other high-powered lights can help, and I recommend integrating the light into a person's environment," she said.

This includes more or better lights at work as well as at home, and Hays said supplementing with light box therapy for those who can afford it also helps.

"Having something fun to look forward to also is important, and people should always plan fun into their day," Hays added.

Although these factors may sound mutually exclusive, they don't have to be. Several winter-only and a few year-round activities can help fend off SAD.

Health clubs, fitness centers and gyms are a prime example.

Curves for Women in Soldotna and Kenai have equipment and programs that can serve as therapy for SAD. Members can choose to work out alone, in groups or under the supervision of trainer. Curves also has light boxes available that are frequently utilized by the clientele.

"We have different women use them for different reasons, but many women use them through the dark winter months," said Juline Arestad, Curves area supervisor.

The light boxes are roughly 12-by-24 inches in size and provide an intense 10,000 lux amount of light, which is roughly similar in intensity to a bright summer day. Average domestic and office lights emit an intensity of 200 to 500 lux, but the minimum dose to treat SAD is believed to be 2,500 lux.

The light boxes are slanted to aim at the user who sits in a large chair receiving the light for short-duration treatments, typically for 15 to 30 minutes once a day.

"The women just sit in front of the light and they can read or do whatever," Arestad said.

She added that the important thing is they keep their eyes open, which is in contrast to what many people do when lying in other light devices, such as tanning beds.

The Kenai River Folk Dancers host contra dances from fall to spring, which many people use a cure for SAD.


Dancers twirl to the music at a contra dance. "We recognized the need for more activities in winter, and contra dancing is all about getting together and having fun, " said contra caller and organizer Heidi Chay.

Clarion file photo by M. Scott M

For those not in the know, contra dancing is similar to old-time square dancing. A "caller" teaches a series of dance moves, then calls them to the beat of barn dance-style music.

"We recognized the need for more activities in winter, and contra dancing is all about getting together and having fun," said contra caller and organizer Heidi Chay.

"Contra dancing brings together people from many walks of life — single, married, young, old, people with kids and without them. It's beginner friendly, and offers good music and a potluck with good food," Chay said.

"It's the best way to have fun with a group of people you've never met," Chay added.

The contra dances are held in the gymnasium of Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School on the third Saturday of every month until April. They begin at 7 p.m. and typically last until 10.

Chay also is a mediator for the Center for Mediation and Community Dialogue, which hosts First Friday Dialogue, monthly potlucks followed by a group discussion on a variety of poignant, community-related topics. Next month's topic is SAD.

"We thought it would be helpful during the month of February, when many people may be suffering from SAD. We hope it will get people out and connecting with each other as an antidote," Chay said.

The First Friday Dialogue is Feb. 4 in the Kenai Peninsula College commons area. The potluck begins at 6:30 p.m. and the dialogue begins at 7:30.

Kenai Peninsula College is preparing to begin its spring semester and numerous classes are offered that could be taken to occupy the mind, as well as exercise the body, such as beginning or intermediate yoga and beginning or intermediate tai chi — often described as a combination of a martial arts and slow-moving yoga.

"Yoga is a powerful way to combat SAD because it can change your whole mood and energy," said instructor Ann Marina.

She explained that through yoga, the spine is stretched, stimulating the spinal nerves, which in turn stimulates the organs, glands and body as a whole.

"The deep breathing associated with yoga also gets more oxygen to the brain, which can help get people feeling better," Marina said.

The beginning yoga class she teaches can be taken by people of any fitness level.

"You don't have to be in great shape to take it. I just focus on breathing, stretching and relaxing. I try to keep it fun. Most people leave feeling better," Marina said.

For more information on the yoga, tai chi or other classes at KPC, call 262-0330 or visit the Internet at

In addition to the college-based courses, KPC, in conjunction with River City Books in Soldotna, hosts the KPC Writers' group every other month from September to May.

"It's a wonderful way to beat SAD and cabin fever. It gets you out and involves you in a social life that doesn't involve bars or drinking," said event organizer Victoria Steik.

She said it is a diverse group of people that attend the semi-monthly meetings.


Students learn self defense in a Soldotna Community Schools class. Kenai Peninsula College also offers educational outlets during the winter months.

Clarion file photo by M. Scott M

"It's open to anybody, not just those associated with the college. Anybody that wants to get their writing out to the public and has something to read can join us. We have everything from high school students to people that have been writing for years," Steik said.

She said the genres that are read are as eclectic as the writers.

"People will read poems, essays, memoirs, fiction, technical writing, everything really. Some even write about the long winters and darkness and that kind of thing," she said.

For more information on upcoming KPC Writers' Group meetings, call 262-0308.

Under new management, Veronica's in Old Town Kenai, began staying open this winter and offers more than just coffee to contend with SAD.

"A lot of people were always telling me how there wasn't much to do in winter, so we wanted to make a community gathering center for the locals that would be open year round," said Rebecca Lambourn, one of the new co-owners of Veronica's.

In addition, Lambourn said she's been trying to convert Veronica's image from solely a coffee house to a cafe by day and a music club at night, and she said so far the decision to stay open during the "off season" has been a good one as far as business goes.

"During the day we get a lot of people in for lunch that come in to sit by the windows to get a dash of sun, and with the live musicians and open mic nights in the evenings, we've really been rocking," Lambourn said.

She added that since Veronica's doesn't serve alcohol and smoking is not permit inside the premises, the customers have represented a wide cross section of the community from high school kids to grandparents and parents with their own kids.

The thing many of them share is they're all looking for ways to stay active and people to stay active with during the long, dark, cold months of winter.

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