Studies show that up to 30 percent of
the population may experience symptoms of a type of depression known as
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Of them, 10 percent have
debilitating symptoms, and most are women.
University of Maine psychologist Sandra Sigmon and her students are
working on new treatments to bring relief. In their research, the
scientists are going beyond traditional light therapy to explore
behavioral, psychological and social treatment alternatives.
"There are very successful cognitive and behavioral treatments for
non-seasonal depression," says Sigmon. "If SAD and non-seasonal types of
depression have similar symptoms, perhaps we can extend those treatments
Symptoms of SAD include lack of energy, mood changes, sleep disruption,
craving for carbohydrate-rich foods, weight gain and difficulty making
decisions. What distinguishes SAD from other types of depression, Sigmon
says, is the seasonal timing — the switch that flips as the leaves
change color and clocks are turned back in the fall.
Exposure to special lights is the first and only recognized line of
defense against SAD. However, such treatment is effective for only about
half to three-quarters of those who experience symptoms, says Sigmon.
Psychologists have other techniques for treating non-seasonal forms of
depression. They work with their clients to change behaviors by
including such activities as exercise and social interaction. They try
to modify thinking patterns that are related to moods, such as a common
tendency to dwell on negative thoughts. There also are medications.
To determine if cognitive and behavioral treatments for depression also
can be effective in combating SAD, Sigmon began conducting studies in
1995, with promising results.
Although she cautions that the studies need to be repeated with larger
groups of subjects, Sigmon says that the results show that cognitive and
behavioral treatments, such as keeping diaries focused on positive
thinking, do work for people with SAD. People with minor and major SAD
symptoms showed improvements after receiving cognitive and behavioral
The extent of the improvements, Sigmon adds, was similar to the benefits
of conventional light therapy.
Two graduate students working with Sigmon, Nina Boulard of New York City
and Stacy Whitcomb of Newburgh, Maine, are now doing SAD studies as part
of their UMaine Ph.D. degree programs. Boulard is focusing on the
relationship between SAD and activity levels. Whitcomb is looking at
cognitive aspects of SAD.
In addition to the benefits for treatment, UMaine SAD studies are
contributing evidence for a broader understanding of depression.
by Nick Houtman
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.