Friday, November 26, 2010

The Damp November of the Soul

Was it my imagination? Ever since the time changed earlier this month I’d been feeling sort of blah---no energy, wanting to take a nap in the afternoon, difficulty focusing on work and projects, craving for sweets, putting on a lot of weight, no desire to go out and deal with other people---“social withdrawal.”

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

--Melville in Moby Dick

OMG, these are classic symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that occurs in relation to the seasons, most commonly beginning in winter!

SAD was first systematically reported and named in the early 1980s by Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D., and his associates at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Rosenthal was initially motivated by his desire to discover the cause of his own experience of depression during the dark days of the northern US winter. He theorized that the lesser amount of light in winter was the cause. Rosenthal and his colleagues then documented the phenomenon of SAD in a placebo-controlled study utilizing light therapy. A paper based on this research was published in 1984. Although Rosenthal's ideas were initially greeted with skepticism, SAD has become well recognized, and his 1993 book, Winter Blues has become the standard introduction to the subject.

It’s hard to believe that the amount of ambient light reaching your retinas during daylight hours would have such an effect on your mood, but it does. Think about the number of animals that go into hibernation or “winter sleep.” Who is to say that a residual effect of this impulse doesn’t occur in modern humans?

Although they say it doesn’t affect everyone, Subsyndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder, a milder form of SAD, is experienced by an estimated 14.3% (vs. 6.1% SAD) of the U.S. population. The disorder may begin in adolescence or early adulthood. I remember my first twinges of it at that age, just before moving to Florida (from Vermont).

It’s said that the blue feeling experienced by SAD sufferers can usually be dampened or extinguished by exercise and increased outdoor activity, particularly on sunny days, resulting in increased solar exposure. Certainly Florida living with its warm weather and outdoors lifestyle cuts down of the endocrine, hormonal (or whatever) effects causing Seasonal Affective Disorder. But I’ve known people even there who were “victims” of this malady.

Now that we are living in North Carolina, it’s come back. As soon as I realized what might be happening, I started spending more time outside in the sunlight during the morning. Yes, it does seem to be working.

In some northern areas people use a light box. It seems a little ridiculous to picture someone eating their breakfast next to an array of 100 watt light bulbs, but they say it works. And for those who suffer from this syndrome, it enables them to ward off depression.

There was a businessman from Connecticut, who may or may not have been a SAD sufferer, but when he became successful, he built an indoor pool with banks of sunlamps and tropical foliage. There he drank his morning coffee, before the sun even came up. I really think he had the right idea.

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