Finding your light; Due to the earth’s rotation and daylight saving time, we spend much of our day in the dark| Kitsap Week

Shorter days and cloudy skies can leave you feeling down-in-the-dumps. - File photo
Shorter days and cloudy skies can leave you feeling down-in-the-dumps.
— image credit: File photo

On these short days when we receive only about nine and a half hours of daylight, you may find yourself humming the old Simon & Garfunkel tune that starts with “Hello darkness, my old friend.”

But if you are one of the many people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), the darkness is anything but your friend.

“The best way to deal with SAD is to be aware of what the darkness is telling our body to do and do the opposite,” Kitsap psychologist Suzanne Ivey said. “We really want to crawl into a cave and be a bear.”

Ivey’s advice: don't be a bear. People who suffer from SAD have hibernation-like symptoms: they have a low-energy level; lose interest in usual activities; crave sugar, salt and fat; feel irritable and sad. (It's interesting to note, doctors are finding some people suffer from SAD during summer and dread sunny days.)

SAD was officially named in the 1980s by psychiatrist Norman E. Rosenthal, who wondered why he felt so blah in the winter. Since then, considerable research has been done on SAD but the exact cause is still unknown.

Ivey said light affects the maintenance of neurotransmitters and some neurochemicals in our brains, which in turn has an effect on sleep patterns. When the melatonin and serotonin chemicals become unbalanced, mild depression can result. The closer you get to the earth’s poles, the more frequently occurring SAD is.

“When the darkness sets in, we get a bit frantic and dread it,” Ivey said. “When we get this low level of depression, we look to comfort ourselves and everything seems too hard.”

It’s too wet.

It’s too cold.

It’s too dark.

It’s too much work.

Ivey said when you begin to have those thoughts, catch yourself and push yourself to do the opposite. The very things people suffering from SAD don’t want to do are the things they should be doing.

Put on a warm coat and go for a walk, Ivey suggests. Even during a drizzle, your body takes in light to help regulate your brain’s chemistry. Get in the habit of walking in the morning so your body craves it —you may complain to yourself during the first five minutes of the walk that it’s too wet, but once you finish, you’ll feel empowered, she said.

People suffering from SAD also have a tendency to socially withdraw.

“We begin to feel isolated because that is where the bear wants to drive us — to isolation,” Ivey said. Contrary to what people with SAD want to do, this is the time to gather friends around for dinner or game night.

“Take the power away from the SAD bear who wants you to go to the cave and hunker down until winter is over.”

Some SAD patients have success with light therapy, which mimics natural light. Patients use a special light and sit near it for a short amount of time — 15 to 30 minutes — in the morning. It’s important to not overuse the light because it can make it difficult to fall asleep at night.

“Some people think, ‘If 30 minutes is good, I’ll do an hour.’ And then they don’t understand why they aren’t sleeping at night,” she said.

And there’s good news for chocolate lovers. Ivey said dark chocolate, in moderation, triggers the development of helpful brain chemicals.

As with any medical condition, see your doctor if you have concerns. Patients diagnosed with SAD have found relief with an antidepressant medication.

Stay away from unproven interventions found on the Internet, Ivey warned. Ask your doctor if you have any questions.

“There will be light again,” Ivey said. “In the meantime, put in place things that will help you feel better.”


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