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February / March 2002 Cover

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Winter Blues


Winter Blues

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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 to SAD."

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 treatments.

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
February-March, 2002

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