A bright idea: Can mindfulness training curb winter blues?Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Dr. Arnie Kozak, a Burlington-based psychologist, is teaching the public about “winter blues” through classes at his Exquisite Mind Studio.
Many of the estimated 10 percent of Vermonters who suffer from seasonal depression try to beat the “winter blues” with sunshine or full-spectrum light bulbs.
They haven’t met Dr. Arnie Kozak. He wants to turn them on to an even brighter idea.
The Burlington-based psychologist has served as one of three lead therapists on a groundbreaking University of Vermont study investigating the effectiveness of trading negative thoughts for a more positive mindset to improve a person’s mental and physical well-being.
Experts commonly treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD) by exposing patients to more light. But Kozak — working under UVM associate professor Kelly Rohan, one of the nation’s foremost researchers of SAD — has offered “cognitive behavioral therapy” to discover whether changing one’s attitudes and actions can ease winter sluggishness, sadness and craving for comfort foods.
Rohan’s unprecedented research, funded by a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, is finding that lightening one’s attitude is just as effective as special bulbs — and ultimately more helpful for preventing future bouts. That’s why, after helping with the study the past three winters, Kozak is sharing its mindfulness concepts in public classes.
“Cognitive behavioral therapy skills are portable,” Kozak says. “You can carry them for the rest of your life and you don’t need to sit in front of an expensive light box every day.”
Kozak has focused on the mind since 1985, when he took vows from the Dalai Lama in Bodhgaya, India. Practicing meditation and yoga, he’s now a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at UVM’s College of Medicine and a lecturer at its College of Nursing and Health Sciences. Such teaching allowed him to meet Rohan, a clinical psychologist who has built a career studying ways to melt the “winter blues.”
SAD is a depression believed linked to a lack of sunlight and its effect on the part of the brain that controls one’s sleep, mood and motivation. As days grow darker in the fall and winter, people can feel sad, worthless or unfocused, lose energy and enthusiasm and face shifts in their sleeping or eating patterns, often craving carbohydrates.
After three previous studies found promise with cognitive behavioral therapy, Rohan began UVM’s now concluding five-year study. Volunteers have traveled to Burlington for six weeks of free treatment. Some have sat 18 inches in front of full-spectrum bulbs (screened of ultraviolet rays) each morning for at least 30 minutes. Others have talked regularly with therapists.
As part of the UVM study, Kozak gathered groups twice a week for a dozen 1˝-hour sessions based on Rohan’s “Coping with the Seasons” treatment guidelines.
“What we think and do can make a difference in how we feel,” Kozak says. “The aim is to make us more aware of our thoughts and behaviors and then to try to shift them.”
Wake on a cold, dark day and you may just want to hibernate.
“People tend to do less or cycle or shut down,” Kozak says. “We engage in a process of monitoring, identifying and challenging those thoughts and behaviors. Attention and awareness can give you options.”
This isn’t ducking or denying.
“We’re not trying to paper over anything or act like Pollyanna. It’s training to be more skillful with thoughts and actions. While we can’t change winter, we can change our relationship to it.”
So instead of surrendering under the covers, one can choose to get up, get out and embrace healthier alternatives such as regular exercise and a diet high in protein and low in carbohydrates.
Rohan has yet to finalize the study’s findings. But researchers can confirm that people treated with cognitive behavioral therapy coped better over time than those simply given more light.
Dr. Norman Rosenthal, the man who coined the term “SAD” and literally wrote the book on it (“Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder”) notes Rohan’s efforts in his paperback’s latest revision: “Preliminary results are so encouraging that they are definitely worth a good look, especially since they lead to specific steps that people with SAD can take to alleviate their suffering.”
That’s good news for the 10 percent of Vermonters who experience full seasonal depression and another 20 percent who face lesser symptoms. And that’s why Kozak — now finishing a third book of his own, “Mindfulness A to Z: 108 Insights for Awakening Now,” for national publication next year — is about to start teaching public courses on winter blues as detailed on his website, exquisitemind.com.
“People want a quick fix — they want a pill, they want a light box,” Kozak says. “We try to revise our thoughts. That’s a skill you can take home and use in relationships, work, all aspects of your life.”
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