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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Shorter Days Lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder

After 18-and-a-half years of working the early-morning shift, I suppose I’ve gotten used to getting up and driving to work in the dark. However, I have an especially difficult time with the Sun setting so early in the afternoon. It seems that there is very little time to do anything outside before it gets dark. In fact, one of the late buses from our neighborhood school arrived just before 5 o’clock last night when it was completely dark out. I don’t like it.

Those who work the 9-to-5 shift are coming home in the dark now. Sunset this afternoon is at 4:33. And, it only gets earlier over the month. By the end of the month, Sunset is at 4:24. The earliest time the Sun sets at our latitude is 4:23 in early December. That is a striking contrast to late June, when the latest Sunset in southwestern Connecticut happens at 8:30.

Psychologically, the darker afternoons and evenings affect many people. You’ve no doubt heard about Seasonal Affective Disorder. According to the National Mental Health Association, some people suffer from symptoms of depression during the Winter months, with those symptoms subsiding during the Spring and Summer. This may be a sign of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a mood disorder associated with depression episodes and related to seasonal variations of light.

How does SAD affect people? People with the disorder frequently experience the following:
  • Sleep problems – oversleeping but not refreshed, cannot get out of bed, needing a nap in the afternoon
  • Overeating – carbohydrate craving leading to weight gain
  • Depression, despair, misery, guilt, anxiety – normal tasks become frustratingly difficult
  • Family / social problems – avoiding company, irritability, loss of libido, loss of feeling
  • Lethargy – too tired to cope, everything an effort
  • Physical symptoms – often joint pain or stomach problems, lowered resistance to infection
  • Behavioral problems – especially in young people

Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, has been linked to SAD. This hormone, which may cause symptoms of depression, is produced at increased levels in the dark. Therefore, when the days are shorter and darker the production of this hormone increases.

Phototherapy or bright light therapy has been shown to suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin. Although, there have been no research findings to definitely link this therapy with an antidepressant effect, many people respond to this treatment.

I admit, the early darkness always shocks me in early November. Remember, it was just over two months ago we were still enjoying Summer and relatively brighter evenings. The Sun set at 7:25 on the first day of September. Seemingly, in the blink of an eye, we’re just about five weeks from the first day of Winter. Yeah, it’s a bummer, to be sure.

Personally, the only positive about the longer nights is the relative ease of falling asleep. I actually feel as though I should be going to bed at 8 p.m., even though it’s an early time by most people’s standards. During the Summer, it’s virtually impossible to fall asleep when the Sun is still shining, my son is playing, and I hear people laughing and talking outside. I actually embrace the darker evenings for that reason alone. After all, the 2 o’clock alarm is not a “friend,” no matter the time of the year.

So, if you don’t enjoy the shorter days and longer nights, we have about a month before the length of daylight begins to increase once again. The first day of Winter is technically “the shortest day of the year.” Before you know it, the evenings will start getting a little brighter once more.

It can’t get here fast enough!