Getting the best of SADby Sanden Totten, Minnesota Public Radio
It's probably no coincidence that this holiday season and its lights, at least in the northern hemisphere, come at the darkest time of year. Research in areas from marketing to mental health to jet lag shows that light affects us as much physically as it does psychologically. And the outcome isn't always bright. In the Loop's Sanden Totten shares his own journey to make peace with the shifting light.
St. Paul, Minn. — Every year around October I become a junkie. I get twitchy and irritable. I start sleeping poorly, eating less. By late November I'm desperate. I hang out at stores after dark. My favorites are Target and Home Depot. Especially the home lighting departments.
I have Seasonal Affective Disorder -- or SAD -- and it makes me a light junkie. Without light I get depressed. It runs in my family; way back in my family. My Swedish forbears were first diagnosed in the 6th century by the Goth historian Jordanes. He described us as tall, meaner than the Germans and profoundly blue during the winter. It wasn't until the 1980s, though, that SAD became an official mental disorder.
Some say it's the same biological urge that drives bears to hibernate. And if I could afford that much Nyquil I might give it a shot. But that's not an option.
Just as I start slowing down, the world speeds up. Suddenly I've got parties to attend, cards to send, people to see, places to be. And if I even think about ducking out of the season, I'm bombarded with well-meaning, but obnoxious, attempts from my friends and family to help me "find my holiday cheer."
It's enough to make you want to skip out on the season altogether. Which is exactly what Janet Berry and her family do. December looks a little different for them.
"Christmas morning we get up and go out on the beach in our bathing suits" explains Janet. "We have pina coladas and toast to the holidays."
Janet and her family fly to Mexico for the winter. She says if light is your drug "go to the source. Go to where its 80 degrees and you can be in the water. I think there is a lot to be said for being gone during the darkest time of the year and coming back and knowing every day it's getting lighter."
She has a point. While psychologist estimate that as many as one in 10 people in the U.S. have SAD, there's almost no documented case in any tropical climate.
But if you can't head south, there is an arsenal of gadgets designed to bring the tropics to you.
Tired of those dark and dreary December mornings? Try a 10,000 lux, full-spectrum "Porta-Sun" light box. Just a flick of the switch and you've got a personal view of the prettier side of a supernova. Just don't look directly at it.
Or you could try a light visor. It's a cap with built-in LED bulbs that shine a calming green light over your eyes. I don't know if the light helps, but I definitely smile every time I realize how incredibly ridiculous I look when I put it on.
Studies have shown that for folks with SAD, bright bulbs do make a difference. But, I can't help feeling that all these gadgets and trips to the beach are somehow like my overzealous friends, trying to pep me up when I want to slow down.
Sometimes it makes me just want to give in to the season. Not the "holiday" season, but the season as it actually is: the season of darkness.
A few weeks ago I met Jenett. She's part of a pagan group called Circle of the Phoenix.
"One of the things I really like about how we approach the dark times is that we force ourselves to slow down and be quiet," says Jennet. "And when you start listening to that quiet, you start listening to yourself. You start listening to what your body really wants, what your mind really wants, what your hopes and fears really are."
For pagans, the dark has a lot to offer. On the eve of the solstice, pagans like Jenett will gather around a burning candle, say a prayer and then blow it out. Then just sit in the darkness.
It reminds me of a ritual I had as a kid.
Whenever I needed to hide from a parent or escape a wedgie from my brother, I would hop into our old laundry hamper and close the lid.
I spent hours there in the dark. I would make lists of my favorite foods, rank my best friends or plan the coming school year. And even though I was surrounded by dirty clothes, it was refreshing. When I came out, I was ready for a new take on life, and maybe some dinner.
It's not that I want to be depressed all winter, but I can't help wonder if my body isn't trying to tell me something. Instead of lighting up the world as the solstice approaches, maybe there's a reason we should slow down this time of year. And take at least a few moments to hole up, turn off the lights, regroup and get ready for the new year.
- All Things Considered, 12/22/2006, 6:20 p.m.