February 27. 2014 10:00PM

Got the winter blues? Let there be light

Union Leader Correspondent

Dr. Carl Hindy, a psychologist, uses a light therapy lamp at his desk in his Nashua office. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

Got the blues this winter?

If so, you’re not alone.

The bone-chilling temperatures and relentless snowstorms that have plagued New England are taking a toll on even the hardiest Granite Staters.

Seasonal depression is real, and this year it’s bad, according to local therapists on the front lines of this personal battle with Mother Nature.

“It’s really hard up here. It’s dark. It’s cold. It’s really unpleasant out, and as much as you try not to let the weather affect your mood, when you have a cold spell like we’ve had this year and with the darkness, it’s really hard to avoid it,” said Dr. Karen Gillock, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Lebanon.

Gillock and other therapists are seeing elements of the winter blues commonly referred to in the medical community as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Seasonal depression tends to worsen during the fall and peak in the winter months. It improves in the spring and summer.

The University of New Hampshire tries to help students and staff cope by offering free light therapy.

Provided by UNH Health Services, the light therapy can be an effective way to beat the blues.

Users can schedule sessions lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours with a light box. Those seeking the treatment sit with their eyes open and read, write, or simply relax.

Experts say light therapy mimics sunshine and can help improve a person’s mood.

The university has seen more students taking light therapy this winter. Not all have been diagnosed with SAD, according to Kathleen Grace-Bishop, director of education and promotion at UNH Health Services.

While some students and staff have tried the therapy and decided it wasn’t for them, Grace-Bishop said others schedule regular appointments.

“I think for everyone it’s different,” she said. “For some they find it very useful.”

Dr. Carl Hindy, a clinical psychologist who practices in Nashua, has his own therapy light on his desk, but not because he’s depressed. He arrives early in the morning when it’s cold and dark and needs a desk light, so he figured he might as well use a therapy light.

“It certainly has a pleasant effect,” he said.

People who suffer from SAD experience lower serotonin levels while melatonin levels are higher. Hindy said serotonin is a neurotransmitter; low levels are commonly associated with depression.

“For some people they certainly have a greater proneness to this and they may have more of this quasi-hibernation,” he said.

Though it’s hard to quantify, Hindy said the “quasi-hibernation” many people experience in the winter could be a contributing factor.

“There is an indication that the (therapy) lights work, but there’s also indication that if you’re physically active out in the light, that’s even more effective. One hour outdoors in sun may be better than two to three hours with a lamp,” he said.

“Even just a walk out at lunchtime or a walk to the bus stop can help.”