How Seasonal Affective Disorder could put a damper on the holiday spirit
Like the planets orbit the sun, our lives spin around the seasons. These subdivisions of the year do more than signal us when it’s time to whip out our Mackage coats and begin fireside chats with friends over which artist sings the best “Baby It’s Cold” rendition. They inform us that time is passing and events are moving forward, as is the natural order of things. As New Yorkers, we have an internal hourglass that marks the passing of time until the sand has run out, signaling our earmuffs and legwarmers that winter has arrived! Not one to be late to the party, winter arrives on cue and sashays down Sullivan Street in all her glory while dusting off her snowy skin and casting an opalescent sheen over downtown’s cobblestone streets and awnings.
The red cups brimming with spices and peppermint have returned to ye faithful Starbucks, Broadway has become the mecca for ambling tourists hiding behind maps in search of NYC tchotchkes, and Christmas-tree vendors pepper the once-subdued streets from Nolita to Soho. It’s hard to imagine a downtown without a winter, just as it would be impossible to imagine the harbor without the Statue of Liberty. But for some, winter doesn’t evoke the same jubilation, and getting through the season can feel like navigating a dark labyrinth of gloom and despair.
Those severely impacted by winter’s shorter days and long frigid nights might be at risk for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Recognized by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th Edition (DSM-IV), SAD is described as a subtype of a major depressive episode. During winter’s reign, our brains produce increased levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. For those affected by SAD, one theory is that a biochemical imbalance of melatonin could lead to a shift in one’s internal hourglass, causing unhealthy behaviors that require medical intervention.
Typical symptoms of SAD include depressed mood, lethargy, lack of interest in activities, social withdrawal and a craving for sweets and carbohydrates. Those affected also spend inordinate amounts of time sleeping and have difficulty leaving their beds. As a result of weight gain and decreased interest in sex and physical contact, SAD sufferers also experience feelings of misery, shame, hopelessness and loss of self-esteem. These symptoms usually occur like clockwork beginning in November or December, peaking during January and February, and dissipating by March or April, depending on how quickly sunlight returns from hibernation. Though anyone can suffer from SAD, an overwhelming majority are young adults and women.
The key to diagnosing SAD is a recurrence of these deleterious symptoms during two successive winters followed by a routine remission in the spring. And while those who suffer from SAD may experience these symptoms at an extreme, there might be a greater number of people at risk for a milder assortment of SAD symptoms categorized as the “winter blues.” For the less-extreme blues, individuals might experience the decreased energy, increased appetite and feelings of sleepiness without feelings of depression and anxiety.
A season that should be welcomed with Bryant Park ice-skating arms thus becomes a dismal march through gray days, but there is some relief. Clinicians and those who have previously been affected by SAD now know when to expect the onset, how long it will last and how to treat it head-on. Special lamps are just one method that has proven helpful. And for downtowners in need of a quick Vitamin D pick-me-up, I suggest long runs along the glistening Hudson River or an idyllic Washington Square Park walk. Though anyone in cold northern cities can feel winter’s burn, downtown New Yorkers are lucky in that we’re surrounded by environmental therapy. Here’s to a healthy and happy winter for all.
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