by Robert Heiliger, LPCC-S

Do you know someone who tends to feel blue around this time of year, but who otherwise feels great in the spring and summer? Such a person may suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Although the cause is not completely understood, it appears that the reduction of sunlight in a person’s life is at the root of the problem.

According to Norman Rosenthal, M.D., citing the research of Rosen, Targum, Terman,, “the prevalence of SAD has been shown to increase with increasing latitude.” Latitude is the distance from the equator. Southern Florida, which is 26 degrees north latitude, shows a 1.4% of the population reporting SAD symptoms. However, New Hampshire (at 45 degrees north latitude) folks report between 9.1 and 14% SAD symptoms. Cincinnati is 39 degrees north latitude (Columbus 40 degrees north and Cleveland 41 degrees north). Women report SAD symptoms three times as often as men in the U.S., while Japanese men and women report equal frequency.

Symptoms of SAD may include an overall sense of low energy, an increased desire to sleep, an increased desire to eat carbohydrates, avoidance of other people, an overall decline in usual interests including sex, and decreased concentration. According to the research coordinated through the National Institute of Health, light has a major impact on one’s well being. In fact, the intensity of light and the amount of time one is exposed to bright light, can effect energy level, alertness, mood, the sleep/wake cycle, and one’s ability to control weight and appetite.

With up to 14% of the U.S. population noticing a seasonal change in their behavior and 6% reporting serious changes, it becomes a significant mental health issue. We are all aware of the stress and pressure placed on American families. Up to 40 million people are involved in some sort of shift work. Between 14 and 24 million suffer from sleep scheduling disorders. Millions travel by plane weekly and suffer from jet lag. It is estimated that 90% of the day is spent indoors under artificial lights where the light intensity rarely reaches that of an overcast day. We seem to insist that we live life 24 hours per day, extending day in night. Yet, the most ancient part of our brain says “its time to hibernate, go load up on food and go to sleep for the winter like a bear.”

What can a person do who suffers from SAD? Ideally, we would go to Florida or to the Caribbean for a week each winter. However, there are ways to get help while staying home. Exercise, counseling, behavior modification, modifying diet, and perhaps some medication are all indicated in managing SAD. And increasing one’s exposure to bright light!

There are specially designed light boxes which can be purchased or rented. They can be used at home or in the workplace. The key to photo therapy is the intensity and length of exposure to light. Research from the National Institute of Mental Health suggests the light needs to have an intensity of 2500 lux (the measurement of light which enters the eye). An exposure of 10,000 lux for 30-45 minutes/day is considered highly therapeutic. Most indoor lighting rarely exceeds 500 lux. The theory is that this intense light enters the eye stimulating the hypothalamus deep in the brain. The hypothalamus maintains harmony within the body, including control of the nervous system, fluid balance, energy balance, heat regulation, emotional balance, circulation, sleep and wakefulness, breathing, growth and maturation, and reproduction. The hypothalamus sends on a light stimulated signal to the pineal gland over a 24 hour cycle. This gland secretes melatonin which regulates sleep, wakefulness and concentration.

Therefore, exposure to bright light in the months when there is less sunlight is important. Counseling is often helpful, because recovery may require a temporary lifestyle change. A therapist can help provide support and a reality check for the person battling SAD symptoms. Spiritually, we also need to be attentive to the powers of light and dark. The bright lights of Christmas and Hanukkah may cheer some up, but they may bring on painful memories for others. It is God’s spiritual light which ultimately comforts us, exposes life’s most frightening shadows, and chases off the demons of depression.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, Angela Smyth, Thorsons, London, 1990., Angela Smyth, Thorsons, London, 1990.

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