THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Surviving winter’s darkness

(Cheryl Richards)
By Carol Stocker
Globe Correspondent / March 10, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Q. Why do people tend to feel so bad at this time of year?

A. Even if you don’t have SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), the lack of sunlight leaves most people feeling depleted, and the snow contributes to the feeling of being besieged. People don’t always turn into Jack Nicholson in “The Shining,’’ but staying home a lot can contribute to cabin fever. Psychiatric admissions peak in January, while spring and summer are happiest for most of us.

Q. Is there some magic pill you can take to chase away the winter blues?

A. Actually, there is one antidepressant indicated for SAD. It’s marketed under the name Wellbutrin. It’s versatile and does a lot of good things, including helping people quit smoking. People can ask their doctor about it. It takes a month to work. If you’re still dragging a little, it makes sense to get a light box, which can be reimbursed through medical insurance, though it’s not a big investment. They cost around $300.

Q. What is a light box?

A. You can use any full-spectrum, 10,000 lux florescent light. Have it shine on your face with your eyes open for 20 or 30 minutes in the morning while reading The Boston Globe. People feel a noticeable mood improvement in 10 days. Look at the Center for Environmental Therapeutics (www.cet.org), run out of Columbia University. Their models are well made and cost less than commercial companies’. I also tell people to Google Northern Light Technologies in Canada.

Q. What about natural light?

A. Layer up and go outside with your face turned up on your lunch hour. Don’t stare at the sun, but getting sunlight into your retina helps activate vitamin D. You don’t need to get into your bathing suit.

Q. What else can you do to feel better?

A. The same solutions don’t work for everyone, so try different things. The easiest is to generate endorphins through exercises. If you can’t run outside, get on a treadmill. Skiers love this season and they get exposed to more sunlight. Rent some skates. Winter activities give you a sense of control and help you embrace the season.

Q. What about indoors?

A. Make your home cozy. Light a fire. Turn the thermostat up one degree. Buy scented candles. Decorate differently in the winter. You don’t have to be Martha Stewart, but she does carry the flag for seasonal adjustment, which is something we all already do a bit with the colors of our clothes and the foods we cook. Flowers and houseplants really do change people’s moods. A little is so much better than none at all. If you’re not good at this stuff, find someone who is, a cheerful person who embraces winter successfully and make them your “winter mentor.’’

Q. What about getting away or taking a vacation?

A. Even if you can’t afford it, just planning a getaway helps you feel you are not trapped. The real problem with going somewhere warm is that you have to come back to winter. I used to take spring break very late, the end of March, or even the beginning of April, to jump start spring. Even better, go someplace people are enjoying winter, like a ski resort out west where there’s lots of sunshine. Otherwise head to Florida or southern Arizona or California.

Q. You maintain practices on both coasts. When is your next trip to LA?

A. I’m leaving tonight.

Q. Are Bostonians more adaptive because they have seasons?

A. LA is strange. It’s sunny 330 days a year, so they don’t know what to do if it rains. Embracing seasonal variation is healthy. There’s a kind of stagnation when you’re in one season all year long. It’s like being in a mall.

CAROL STOCKER

Interview was edited and condensed. Carol Stocker can be reached at stockergarden@gmail.com.

WHO
Dr. John R. Sharp
WHAT
The author of “The Emotional Calendar: Understanding Seasonal Influences and Milestones to Become Happier, More Fulfilled, and in Control of Your Life,’’ Sharp is a psychiatrist and neuropsychiatrist at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is also on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He divides his time between Boston and Los Angeles.