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As I drive through the mid-Atlantic countryside in the unending blackness of the winter night, my eyes are drawn to colorful displays of light that people use to festoon their houses, bushes and trees. In this most dreary time of year, just getting out of bed in the morning becomes an obstacle to overcome, rather than an automatic and cheerful spring of the limbs. One’s most coveted activity (in my case, horseback riding) often seems more like an obligation or chore, really, instead of something one cannot wait to do.
I’m not alone. Among my equestrian buddies, the common complaint this time of year is, “I’m so out of shape. I can’t even force myself to ride most days.” It’s not the temperature that stops us. It’s our moods. But sufferers of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, can now come out of the closet. It’s no longer the stigma or figment it once was.
Pagan tribes celebrated the winter solstice, and it’s no accident that Christianity’s most colorful holiday, which has evolved to include red-clothed Santas and bright blue, green and red lights, is four days later. Since the beginning of time, medical authorities now report, human animals have been inventing ways to brighten dreary winters, while some of their mammal colleagues take it off altogether and sleep through it.
Dr. Richard Friedman, a Weill Cornell Medical College psychiatrist writing in The New York Times this week said, “As daylight wanes, millions begin to feel depressed, sluggish and socially withdrawn. They also tend to sleep more, eat more and have less sex. By spring or summer the symptoms abate, only to return the next autumn. Once regarded skeptically by the experts, seasonal affective disorder, SAD for short, is now well established. Epidemiological studies estimate that its prevalence in the adult population ranges from 1.4 percent (Florida) to 9.7 percent (New Hampshire).”
It comes as no surprise to those of us who suffer from it that the percentage of people affected is much higher in New Hampshire, where the winters are colder, the light is thinner and the days are much shorter than in tropical Florida. What may be a surprise to many is that there are now treatments, so suffering through winter, if you’re affected by SAD, is no longer de riguer.
Bright, full-spectrum light early in the morning is the best nonmedical intervention. Scientists have now confirmed that the production of melatonin, “a brain chemical turned on by darkness and off by light,” Friedman writes, can be controlled to a certain extent by artificial light and that melatonin production tracks closely with SAD in many sufferers. “There might have been a survival advantage, a few hundred thousand years back, to slowing down and conserving energy — sleeping and eating more — in winter. Could people with seasonal depression be the unlucky descendants of those well-adapted hominids?” asks Friedman.
The Mayo Clinic offers some online guidelines for when SAD is serious enough to prompt a visit to the doctor. “Most people experience some days when they feel down. But if you feel down for days at a time and you can’t seem to get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, see your doctor. This is particularly important if you notice that your sleep patterns and appetite have changed — and certainly if you feel hopeless, think about suicide or find yourself turning to alcohol for comfort or relaxation.”
But the main thing to remember is, if you do need help, you’re hardly alone. You’re joined by millions of others in the United States and worldwide. That closet door is now open. If northern winters are getting you down, turn the handle, walk out and join the crowd.
(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)