Health & Wellness Spirituality

SAD with the Seasons?

The great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas—yes, that guy, the one that singer/ songwriter Bob Dylan took the name from—wrote in his most famous poem, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Read More


The great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas—yes, that guy, the one that singer/ songwriter Bob Dylan took the name from—wrote in his most famous poem, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

The good night he’s talking about, of course, is death; and he’s advising us, somewhat contrary to conventional wisdom, against too easy an acceptance of it. Hold onto your life—your light—with a good tight grip. Get good and angry about it, if you need to. It’s worth it.

Not exactly the Serenity Prayer. And not the usual recommendation to “let go” and stop “resisting what is” and “accept” that often comes at us in pop psychology and even some spiritual circles.

I’m not suggesting we stop accepting acceptance and get back in the business of fighting the way the world works, which would be like the little kid at the beach tossing punches at the waves. Yet in my own ongoing journey of recovery, along the way I met a few gifted therapists who helped me a lot who agreed, at least in part, with Mr. Thomas.

One, my dear friend Katherine, who fought more fiercely to hold on to the light than anyone I’ve ever known, once told me, “Don’t give up your anger too soon.” She was warning me against the tendency in modern psychology to release anger and move into forgiveness in a way she felt was premature. I believe that’s the “rage” Thomas is talking about: not petty anger, or mere complaining, but raw, fundamental life-anger. She saw it, as they do in the Tantric traditions, as the pure energy of life itself expressing through our emotions to defend who we are and get things done in the world. She believed it was priceless.

Interestingly, the person who most agreed with her was a Quaker—among the world’s more notable peace-lovers—who was also a therapist. Don told me he had done many sessions with the children of his fellow members, because, as he put it, “They had had peace beaten into them.” Children are naturally and necessarily expressive of their feelings. Installing circuit-breakers against feelings into children’s minds splits them against themselves. Don loved peace; he just believed we get to it through a process of integrating all of the conflicting aspects of who we are, not by short-circuiting it. Katherine and Don loved the light of life itself.

candleThere’s another saying that relates to the one above: “It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” It’s easy to forget, from the comfort of our lighted birthday cake of a world, the night side of which is visible from space, or when you’re flying in over the rosary of lights that is New York City, that in the ancient world, lighting a candle, or an oil lamp or torch, was all they could do when it got dark. But the battle between light and dark has been with us always.

It turns out that light is very important for us human beings, as they probably knew better in those ancient cultures, where artificial light wasn’t an option, than in ours. Virtually every ancient civilization located away from the equator developed rituals centered around light, usually held in the darkest, coldest parts of the year. They raged against the dying of the light by staging elaborate light shows, lighting bonfires, and reminding themselves that brighter, warmer days would return. Harvest festivals celebrated the gathering in of the fruits of the fields to be stored up against the lean months, seen as a kind of down-payment towards the renewal of spring.

This is particularly relevant, I think, as we slide towards holiday time, the days shorten, and the shadows lengthen. Because there’s a problem a lot of us have around this time of year, known formally as “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” or SAD.

SAD is a type of clinical depression related to the loss of daylight that begins in fall and continues through the winter. It’s characterized by a loss of energy and interest in life and a tendency to moodiness during the darker days. Usually, it starts to affect us at around age 14 and continues through adulthood, with over three million cases per year in the United States alone. According to the Mayo Clinic, other symptoms can include trouble sleeping or oversleeping, changes in appetite or weight, trouble concentrating, feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilt, and even thoughts of death or suicide. So they counsel us to not “brush off that yearly feeling as simply a case of the ‘winter blues’ or a seasonal funk that you have to tough out on your own,” and encourage us to “Take steps to keep your mood and motivation steady throughout the year.”

In terms of risk factors, it’s worth noting that SAD is diagnosed roughly four times as often in women as in men, and occurs more frequently in younger than in older adults. Family history also can play a part, as those diagnosed with the disorder appear likelier to have blood relatives who suffer from it or other types of depression.

No real cause for SAD is currently known, but at least four factors have been identified:

  • It affects our circadian rhythms, or “biological clock.” The decrease in sunlight is thought to throw off our internal patterns and create discomfort that increases the tendency to depression.
  • People who are particularly affected by SAD may have difficulty regulating a key neurotransmitter, serotonin, which plays an important role in mood formation. Less sunlight can cause a drop in the amount of serotonin in the system.
  • On the opposite side, more darkness can increase the body’s production of melatonin, a sleep-regulating chemical. People who have trouble sleeping are sometimes recommended to take melatonin. But its overproduction can result in drowsiness and a desire to just stay in bed.
  • Vitamin D production may also be lower in those with SAD. Vitamin D is thought to play a role in serotonin production, and is stimulated by sunlight.

While no one of these factors can be considered the “cause” of SAD, they likely play a role in people already subject to depression, these disturbances to their biological rhythms triggering depressive patterns of thinking, feeling and behavior.

I believe this is particularly important for anyone in recovery, and we should be alert to the warning signs of SAD in our lives. Depression, anxiety, and behavioral issues are already familiar territory for many who have struggled with addiction, and the presence of a natural stimulus like the diminishing of light with the seasons can trigger the return of these problems if we do not take care.

But as is often the case, I also think that the ancients may have been ahead of us on some of this. They instinctively understood the profound importance of light to life. The first thing God says in the creation legend of the Bible is “Let there be light.” And the importance of the lights in the heavens for the sense of order in our lives is recognized. Our ancestors felt something that modern science has confirmed: that we are light. We are made from light. Everything we see was born in the sun as light and fire that spun off from its source and moved into orbit around it. We’ve just cooled down a little since then. But we still need regular touches of it.

The ancient yogis of India and their counterparts elsewhere practiced exercises that involved letting sunlight in through the optic nerve, which we now know is a valuable stimulus to the brain. Looking directly into the sun for too long may be a bad idea, but letting a little light in on a regular basis is a good one. So take off your cool shades once in a while.

SAD can get worse and lead to more serious problems than those above if it’s not treated, including withdrawal from social interaction; problems at work or school; anxiety or eating disorders; and, of particular importance to those in recovery, substance abuse.

Treatments for SAD include psychotherapy, medication, Vitamin D, and, most interesting for our purposes here, “Light Therapy.” How do these work?

If you are thinking of seeing a therapist for SAD, you should know that cognitive-behavioral therapy has been found effective. It identifies negative thoughts and replaces them with positive ones, and helps the person identify activities that give them pleasure to counteract depressive tendencies.

When it comes to medication, Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) and bupropion are commonly used to treat SAD.

The logic of treating SAD with Vitamin D is that people with SAD were found to have low blood levels of the vitamin, so increasing it might help, given its links to sunlight, but studies have been contradictory.

So what about Light Therapy? This has been one of the main forms of treatment for SAD since the 1980s. It seeks to replace the loss of sunlight with doses of bright, artificial light. The client sits in front of a light box when they first get up in the morning, continuing this practice daily during the darker seasons. The average light box generates about 20 times greater light than standard indoor lighting.

For those in recovery, who are already more at risk than the general population, checking out if you suffer from SAD and getting help with it if so is a bright idea.

sadThe truth is, though, anybody can be affected by the change of the seasons, and many people complain about it. I have never worked anyplace where my coworkers didn’t talk about how hard it was to get up in what seemed like the middle of the night, or how “depressing” it was to leave work at four o’clock and see the shadows shuffling like mourners across the walk or lawn.

So here’s one last piece of wisdom from the spiritual traditions. Everything I’ve talked about above has to do with physical light, the infinitely small “packets” of photons that flow in an unending stream from the sun. But without exception, the traditions of spirituality talk about another type of light, sometimes called “the inner light,” “uncreated light,” or “invisible light.” It’s worth noting that in that story from the Bible earlier, God creates light before creating the sun and other celestial bodies.

It’s not a mistake. It’s meant to suggest that there is a deeper reality that precedes the visible world, one that Moses, Plato and the Buddha all talked about. In the language of my Quaker friends like Don, it’s “that of God,” the light of Spirit or that unseen realm that exists in every one of us. Part of living as a mature human being means recognizing, acknowledging and honoring that light in ourselves and in everyone we meet in the way we conduct ourselves.

As singer/songwriter Paul Simon puts it in his song, “Proof of Love,”

Feel the sun
Drink the rain
Let your body heal its pain
Bathe beneath a waterfall of light

It isn’t just sunlight he’s talking about. That’s covered in the first line. It’s the finding of that “waterfall of light” that is the basis of the spiritual life. When we do, we can let go our rage and “go gentle into that good night,” or any other situation that life brings our way.

Happy All Souls and All Saints Day!

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