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‘Tis the season to have an affective disorder

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My melancholy baby / words by Geo. A. Norton ; music by Ernie Burnett., Digital ID G00C64_001, New York Public LibraryChristmas has returned to Midtown again. We all know the holiday tableau – the brightly twinkling lights, the piping hot hot chocolate, the carefree skating in the park, and the happy shoppers thronging the streets overflowing with song and good will towards men. Being in Midtown is like living inside a snow globe.

And yet, to many New Yorkers, all this cheer feels terribly out of synch with an inescapable melancholy. Maybe it’s the incessant drone of canned X-mas tunes spooling out of the loutspeakers in Bryant Park, or the frozen spit on the sidewalk, or the way those happy shoppers never cease to get in the way (stupid tourists) when an underpaid New York working stiff is just trying to get a bite to eat (don’t they have anything better to do than trip you with their overstuffed shopping bags?). An inner grinch wants to shut out the lights, stop the music, and sleep straight through to April.

For those of you who might have these feelings, unless you’re a perennial misanthrope (and you know who you are), there very well may be a physiological reason. You may have at least a mild form of SAD – seasonal affective disorder.

Stuck where the sun doesn’t shine.

About this time of year it begins to hit you – the sun has left the City for parts south. It’s not so bad that there’s no daylight at all - New York’s not Anchorage, or Helsinki - but it’s bad enough so that unless you get up early (which many of us New Yorkers are constitutionally unable to do) you’re not going to get even a small drop of golden sunshine.

Does this sound like everyone you know?

The Mayo Clinic’s Website offers a detailed description of some common symptoms of Fall and winter SAD (winter depression):

“Depression, Hopelessness, Anxiety, Loss of energy, Social withdrawal, Oversleeping, Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, Appetite changes- especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates, Weight gain, Difficulty concentrating and processing information”

A SAD history.

While SAD is a relatively recent term, the disorder is apparently nothing new. Hoosier Herb Hunter of the Greensburg [Indiana] Daily News offers the following December 5, 2007 article titled “Are you SAD about winter?”:

“… the earliest documentation of SAD is found in the ‘Getica.’ The ‘Getica’ was written in 551 AD by the Goth scholar, Jordanes, and documented the European Goth lifestyle, including the presence of SAD during the winter months.In the early 1800’s, SAD was described in Iceland by the Icelandic word, ‘skammdegisthunglyndi.’ ‘Skamm’ means short, ‘degi’ means day, ‘thung’ is heavy, and ‘lyndi’ means mood. Put it all together, and the Icelanders, who suffer through some of the shortest days during the winter months, have summed up SAD as ‘short day, heavy mood.’ I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Our modern understanding of SAD began in 1984, when Norman Rosenthal, MD, wondered why he became sluggish and depressed following a move from his native South Africa to New York City during the winter months. He began experimenting with artificial light, increasing the amount of light he was exposed to during that winter and found it made a difference in his own mood. Rosenthal later estimated that 1.5 percent of all adults in Florida suffer from SAD during the winter, compared with 9 percent of adults coping with SAD in the northern United States. …”

Possible causes and some treatments:

The American Psychiatric Association offers a fact sheet (pdf) on SAD which includes theories on what causes SAD:

“How Does SAD Develop? SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and a lack of sunlight in winter. Just as sunlight affects the seasonal activities of animals, SAD may be an effect of this seasonal light variation in humans. As seasons change, people experience a shift in their biological internal clock or circadian rhythm that can cause them to be out of step with their daily schedule.

Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone, also has been associated to SAD. This hormone, which has been linked to depression, is produced at increased levels in the dark. When the days are shorter and darker, more melatonin is produced.Researchers have proved that bright light makes a difference to the brain chemistry, although the exact means by which sufferers are affected is not yet known. Some evidence suggests that the farther someone lives from the equator, the more likely they are to develop SAD. For example, approximately 25 percent of the population at the middle-to-northern latitudes of the U.S. experience winter doldrums, a sub-clinical level of SAD. These people notice the return of SAD-like symptoms each winter, but remain fully functional.

The most difficult months for SAD sufferers seem to be January and February. Younger adults and women are thought to be at higher risk for developing symptoms. SAD may begin at any age, but the main age of onset is between 18 and 30 years. …”

The American Psychiatric Association offers some tips on how to get through this, “the most wonderful time of the year”:

“Those suffering from mild cases of SAD can benefit from additional exposure to the sun. This can include a long walk outside or arranging your home or office so that you are exposed to a window during the day. For many suffering from more severe cases of the condition, light therapy (phototherapy) has proven an effective treatment option. This form of therapy involves exposure to very bright light (usually from a special fluorescent lamp) for a few hours each day during the winter months. Additional relief has been found with psychotherapy sessions, and in some cases, prescription of antidepressants.Getting screened and evaluated is a smart, sensible way to take care of your health and ensure that you can enjoy the pleasures of the season. Symptoms of SAD can be confused with other medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism or viral infections like mononucleosis, so a proper evaluation by a medical professional is crucial.If you feel you are suffering from SAD, consult with your doctor about possible treatment options.”

One way to get your jollies back.

Here at Mid-Manhattan, if you’re starved for sunlight (and who isn’t?) there’s not much that you can do. Hibernation’s not an option, and the subway doesn’t yet go as far south as Florida. One thing you might try is to get outside and catch some rays during lunch hour. Not that you’ll get enough light to lay down a tan, but you might be able to partially thaw your frozen endorphins. Try to get outside between 1:00 and 2:00, which, as you may have noticed, seems to be the golden hour when Fifth and all the other avenues are bathed in the long slanting hibernal light.

But if you take a later lunch, as I typically do, by 2:30 the sun has more or less retreated behind the buildings. And while on a sunny day there may be blue sky above and dazzlingly tantalizing hints of reflected sunlight from 500 Fifth Avenue, the streets will be shrouded in shadow. One tip – in the later afternoon you will find a thin sliver of dim light between the American Radiator Company building (the Bryant Park Hotel) and some other nameless tall building. If you stand there for a few minutes, watching the holiday crowd pass in their winter woolens and fleece, surrounded by people probably just as sun starved as you are, you might even crack a smile and start to feel a less grinchy.

Of course if you’re one of the melatonin-starved many who work in the MML basement, then you know what SAD is - 13 months a year.

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