Here is some interesting trivia – did you know that of all the people in the world who live above 60 degrees north, more than a quarter of them are in Finland? That’s right, just under 20 million people live above 60 degrees latitude and 27% of them are here with us in Finland. Helsinki is the second-northernmost capital city in the world after Reykjavik. This extreme northern latitude means that Helsinki receives just less than 6 hours of sunlight per day in the middle of winter!
So how do we cope? Well, we could listen to Abba’s song about the loneliness of winter gloom “Gimme a Man after Midnight” and just become one with the Scandinavian way of life.
But for those of us who want to avoid feeling low and lethargic during the dark months, there are a few things you can do about it.
For example, bright light therapy is useful as a preventative measure to avoid getting the more serious forms of winter blues, like subclinical Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and SAD itself. This disorder is basically a form of depression which is characterised by increased sleep in winter and an increased appetite for carbohydrates, which then spontaneously recovers in spring time. In Finland about 12% of people suffer from SAD and 27% from sub clinical (low level) SAD. SAD is effectively treated much the same way as depression, for example with cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and often anti-depressants. However some studies have shown that bright light therapy can be as effective as CBT (Rohan et al, 2015).
Light therapy should be done for 30 minutes per day, every day. Ideally this should be before 8am in the morning (Levitan, 2005), but anytime between 6am and 9am should be effective. The easiest way to expose yourself to bright light for half an hour is when you eat breakfast or drink your morning tea or coffee. Sit next to a bright light therapy lamp on the table or have one hanging above your table. You can either buy a purpose built lamp to prop up on the table, or install a hanging ceiling lamp that switches between low lux mode and bright light therapy mode (10,000 lux). Many Finnish companies sell such products, as well as many tabletop lamps. You should not look at the lamp directly, but have the light at an angle, about 40 – 50 cm from your face. Using bright light therapy from about October to March should help with maintaining your energy levels and reducing the sleepiness that we often experience in the dark winter months.
It’s also important to do regular exercise (outdoors if possible, but very warmly dressed), expose yourself to daylight (e.g. walk outside at lunchtime), and regularly take Vitamin D3 (20 to 50 micrograms per day, according to psychiatrist Antti Liikkanen). He also argues that travelling to a warmer, sunnier country for a holiday in winter time can be expensive and only help temporarily. Daily actions such as exercise, light exposure (bright light therapy and outdoor during daylight) and Vitamin D are more important. You can also think of the dark time as a period when you can slow down and rest a bit more. Many Finns find that they avoid going out too much in winter time and use the time to relax and de-stress at home. And remember: it’s only temporary – the light will return!
If you feel that your winter blues are more serious than normal, than you may want to talk to your doctor about the possibility that you have depression and seek advice from them. You are also welcome to contact us about the usefulness of CBT therapy.
Rohan K.J., Mahon J.N., Evans M., Ho S.Y., Meyerhoff J., Postolache T.T., & Vacek P.M. (2015). Randomized trial of cognitive-behavioral therapy versus light therapy for seasonal affective disorder: Acute outcomes. American Journal of Psychiatry, 172(9):862-9. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2015.14101293.