Book Review: Winter Blues by Norman Rosenthal

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017 at 7:13 am

My mother took me to the doctor nearly every year of high school. I listed off the same complaints: decreased energy, depressed mood, weight gain, dry skin, general malaise. We asked that the doctor check my thyroid. Thyroid disorders run in my family after all. The doctor would ask more questions, would order a lab draw. A few days later, I’d get the results and discover that there was nothing wrong with me.

Every November, when the letter came announcing my normal lab results, I’d wonder what was wrong with me – because there clearly WAS something wrong with me, whatever the lab results said.

And then, one year in college (if I remember the timeline correctly), the doctor gave me a depression questionnaire and announced that there was in fact something wrong with me.

Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.

I started taking an antidepressant, and within a couple of weeks I felt better (by winter standards) than I’d felt for years. By summer standards? Me on an antidepressant still didn’t come close. But it was enough to convince me that this was indeed my problem.

Since the diagnosis of SAD ten or so years ago, I’ve experienced a couple of episodes of major depression and have read about depression in general. But I haven’t read any books on Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Winter Blues

Until this year. This year, I read Norman E. Rosenthal’s Winter Blues – and it changed my life.

Dr. Rosenthal was the researcher who first described seasonal affective disorder, a cyclic form of depression which varies throughout the year based on light exposure. Winter Blues describes the discovery of SAD and its features, discusses the diagnostic criterion for SAD (including a number of charts to help patients understand their own seasonal patterns), and details the treatment of SAD using phototherapy, psychotherapy, and pharmacotherapy. Additionally, Rosenthal includes a variety of case studies of seasonality throughout history, in modern times, and in language and poetry.

It is the section of phototherapy, the area where Rosenthal did a great deal of research, that changed my life. After reading the section on phototherapy (sometime in October), I ordered a Lightphoria 10,000 Lux Energy Lamp from Amazon (link is to Amazon, not an affiliate link). I’ve been using the light (which is smaller than ones described in Rosenthal’s chapter on phototherapy) approximately 30 minutes daily since the light arrived on Halloween. For the first winter in almost fifteen years, I have had the energy to work steadily throughout the day without collapsing into overwhelmed-ness. Interestingly enough, while the lights had a significant impact on my energy level, it did not fix my mood. My mood continued to decrease through November until I initiated my usual winter antidepressant. The combination of the two modes of treatment has resulted in the best winter I’ve had for at least a decade, maybe even two. My mood and coping has been so markedly different that my family remarks on the change.

Using my therapy light
Using my therapy light while working on this blog post

This is not to say that I am an unequivocal fan of this book. Rosenthal’s language can be a bit flowery for my taste at times (at least for what is essentially a self-help book. Give me the facts, I say.) More distressing, while much of Rosenthal’s discussion of treatments is evidence-based, he recommends that SAD sufferers limit carbohydrates despite having only anecdotal (versus empirical) evidence of that strategy’s effectiveness.

Overall, though, I recommend Rosenthal’s Winter Blues for sufferers of SAD and those who suspect they might have some form of seasonality. Sections of this book may also be helpful for family members and friends of those with SAD.


Rating: 3 stars
Category: Medical/Psychology – Self Help
Synopsis: Rosenthal describes seasonal affective disorder and its treatment with an aim to help sufferers cope.
Recommendation: Recommended for those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder or possibly for sufferers’ close family and friends.


Reader Comments (4):

  1. Debbie says:

    I will have to check this book out! I haven’t used my light in a couple years (don’t tell my parents-they bought it for me) because it amped my energy level up too much apparently and increased the number of panic attacks I was having in conjunction with my (at the time) full blown depression. Now that I feel that is pretty much under control, I may try the lamp again next winter for SAD.

    Also interesting to me is that you talk about how long you have had SAD. I remember talking to my dad about how down it made me feel to see all the leaves falling off the trees when I was 8 or 9. I had my first panic attacks when I was 11 or 12 and it was fall. I would be interested in research about SAD in children, especially since Emily already seems prone to anxiety. 😕

    • bekahcubed says:

      Debbie, I think this book may be very helpful for you in developing a personal strategy to combat SAD. Rosenthal discusses anxiety as a side effect of light therapy and some ways to work around that or to organize your therapy periods to minimize anxiety.

  2. Barbara H. says:

    Interesting. I do feel a bit more “down” in January, but not to the point of SAD, I don’t think (in fact, I’ve been planning to write about that in the next week or two). I’ve always wondered how a light would help SAD sufferers, but I am glad that it does.

  3. Janet says:

    Interesting. Makes me want to try a light just to see what happens! To my knowledge I do not have SAD, but I do suffer from OLD ;-) and I notice feeling tired a lot.

    Good to see this review!

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