Shedding light: how to tackle Buffalo winter blues

Dr. Steven L. Dubovsky sets straight common myths on seasonal depression

If Buffalo winters leave you feeling unusually tired, hungry, sad or unmotivated, the good news is that you’re not alone. Mood disorders are fairly common and almost 10 percent of adults in the U.S. experience them, according to the National Institute for Mental Health.

Seasonal blues are even more prevalent. And if you don’t know what to do about it, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or the “winter blues” can place a serious strain on your academics, relationships and other goals.

After speaking with Steven L. Dubovsky, department chair of psychiatry, I realized there was a lot to seasonal depression I did not understand; and as it turns out, understanding the cause is crucial to understanding how to survive until May.

Most people in Buffalo experience some form of the “winter blues” and roughly 1 percent of the population experiences SAD, according to Dubovsky. Seventy percent of people who are depressed year-round, report feeling worse in the winter, he said.

While it’s important to distinguish SAD – the more serious clinical disorder – from the winter blues, both are characterized by a lack of motivation, possible weight gain, change in mood and increased lethargy. This is because both “winter blahs” and seasonal depression are caused by one thing: lack of daylight.

It has nothing to do with the holidays being over, or loneliness around the holidays, Dubovsky explained. The southern hemisphere is evidence of this, since they experience these symptoms at the opposite time of the year – their summer – which is nowhere near the holidays, he said.

“There are other cities like Portland, Oregon for example, where it’s as cloudy there as it is here,” Dubovsky said. “It’s a nicer city than Buffalo, there’s a lot more to do, but people are bummed out there too in the winter, simply because it’s got to do with the available daylight.”

Daylight is crucial in a process which regulates biological rhythms for nearly all functions, Dubovsky said. These rhythms control sleep, appetite, interest in activity and are all synchronized with one another. The lack of daylight entering your eyes throws off this function, which leads to these rhythms desynchronizing, he said.

“For seasonal blues, which a lot of people are going to have, you may be less motivated, it may be a little harder to get yourself to study for exams, you’re going to be less enthusiastic about things... if the football team ever wins you won’t care about it as much,” Dubovsky said.

The solution?

Dubovsky recommended moving to Hawaii or Ecuador if it’s in the budget, but otherwise, simply buying an artificial bright light will reverse these effects. These lights, which start at around $30, aren’t fluorescent or merely bright table lamps. They put out a powerful 10,000 lux of light, producing the affect of sunlight on a beach.

“If you are exposed to that light for a half hour in the morning, it will reverse the effects of seasonal blues generally within three to five days,” Dubovsky said. “Most people would say exposure to light should occur first thing in the morning: that’s because the average person with seasonal depression tends to sleep a lot and they have trouble getting out of bed and bright light in the morning will wake your brain up and reset those biological rhythms.”

It is important to be within a meter of the light so it can be processed through your eyes, Dubovsky said.

As someone who usually struggles with the “winter blues,” I wondered about my own coping mechanisms. I’ve survived by the common (and misguided) logic “everything will be fine if you just go to the gym.”

“Going to the gym is nice if you can do it, but if you’re depressed, you don’t feel like going to the gym,” Dubovsky said. “So, if you’re really dragging, if you’re really bothered by this, the thing that fixes it is the bright light in the morning.”

There’s a lot to love about Buffalo, and about winter too, for that matter. But from my perspective, why struggle to overcome something purely biological when it’s entirely avoidable? If winter bums you out to the point where you gain weight or can’t get yourself to class because you can’t wake up on time, it might be time to check Amazon or see if any of your roommates would split the cost for a lamp.

Dubovsky also said students who are unsure if they suffer from SAD or other mood disorders to visit UB Counseling Center for an evaluation.

“The great thing is it’s a treatable problem; there’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Dubovsky said. “You just have a bad switch in your emotional thermostat that’s not holding at the right setting; you need to get it fixed.”

Sarah Crowley is the senior features editor and can be reached at