Among one of the many challenges for non-natives living in Helsinki, is the fact that Helsinki is the second-northernmost capital city in the world after Reykjavik in Iceland, meaning that Helsinki receives just less than 6 hours of sunlight per day in the middle of winter. And don’t we know it!
Many of my clients complain about developing some symptoms of depression during the dark months of October to February. I usually recommend the following strategies to avoid getting SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) or subclinical SAD symptoms:
1. Bright light therapy is the most useful preventative measure to avoid getting 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. 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.
2. 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).Vitamin D is not really a vitamin, it is a hormone that your body needs everyday and which is absent if you are not taking supplements during the dark winters in Finland.
3. The overseas holiday to a warmer, sunnier country may not be the answer. Dr Liikkanen argues that it may be expensive and only help temporarily in any case. Daily actions such as exercise, light exposure (bright light therapy and being outdoors during daylight) and Vitamin D are more important.
4. Reframe the dark time of year as a time to look after yourself. For example, you can think of the dark time as a period when you can slow down and rest a bit more indoors. 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.
Levitan, R.D. (2005). What is the optimal implementation of bright light therapy for seasonal affective disorder (SAD)? Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, 30(1): 72.
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.
Saarijärvi S., Lauerma H., Helenius H., & Saarilehto S.(1999). Seasonal affective disorders among rural Finns and Lapps. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica.99(2):95-101.