ANOTHER year, and the festivities are behind us.
The high points of Christmas and the New Year, with their glow of time off, conviviality, decoration, rich foods, and beverages, have passed. We are back where we started in late December.
Well, I am loathe to describe the Christmas holidays as akin to a drug binge, but there are parallels!
Drug users can get a huge high from a surge in neurotransmitters such as dopamine and noradrenaline, and practiced users will feel that surge in anticipation of the actual dose.
But once the binge ends comes the crash - dopamine stores are depleted, and the euphoria is displaced by its opposite.
Where there were problems to begin with, the binge may temporarily render them unimportant, but once the drugs wear off they loom even larger.
This explains all of us, in a way, after the holidays.
It’s no coincidence that cultures have so often had a midwinter event. It just makes sense - break the dull monotony of short days and lousy weather.
The Romans had Saturnalia, the Celts had the solstice, Germanic culture had Yule. In our time, in this place, we have Christmas.
To my knowledge, history doesn’t reveal whether the ancients were prone to feeling more down in winter, but current generations certainly are - to the point where we have a name for this syndrome; seasonal affective disorder (with the very apt acronym ‘SAD’).
It is now a recognised clinical condition. SAD Is no laughing matter.
But what is SAD?
Often understood as the ‘winter blues’, it really goes beyond that - it is a form of depression, but with a specific seasonal pattern.
The signs and symptoms are the same as depression - low mood, low energy, disturbed sleep patterns, reduced sex drive, appetite and weight changes, loss of interest and pleasure - but it emerges in the winter months and improves come spring in most cases.
It is perhaps surprisingly common; estimates vary between 1% and 10% of the population, but much of the variation is geographical - in the United States, average estimates are 4 to 5%, but from a low of 1.4% in sunny Florida to a high of 9.7% in rather less sunny New Hampshire.
Why does it come about?
We all know intuitively that bad weather can bring us down, but there are always specific biological underpinnings for such changes. In the case of SAD, the two culprits are a hormone and a neurotransmitter.
Melatonin is produced in our bodies to promote sleep, typically rising at night. In wintertime, with less daylight, our bodies can produce more of it - so we end up feeling less energetic.
Serotonin is considered a key figure in depression, with many antidepressants focused on it - and the darkness is associated with lower levels of serotonin.
What can we do if we experience SAD?
Well, first off, if your mood is very low and it’s affecting your life, never be embarrassed to go to a professional for support; if we had bad physical pain or a bad cough we’d seek help, and psychological wellbeing is really no different.
For most of us, we may find that our mood is depressed but we are still doing OK - just on the lower end of OK. There are things we can do to make this better.
One is simple, free and readily available - just go outside.
When we’re down, and especially when the weather is bad, the couch can be very tempting - but even in the shortest day of the year, there are still about eight hours of daylight in Cork.
And even on the duller winter days, the light outside remains more powerful than we can typically experience inside; plus, exercise is well known to improve our mood.
It’s also possible to mimic daylight indoors; people with SAD are often advised to try ‘lightboxes’ - devices which produce very bright light for indoors - and many more people use full spectrum lighting. The evidence for these is inconsistent, but they are certainly worth a go.
Otherwise, do things that usually make you feel good. There is evidence that serotonin improves mood - but there’s also evidence that improved mood increases serotonin.
This is consistent with a well known psychological phenomenon - if we’re feeling negative we are more likely to see the negative and vice versa.
Try to activate that upward spiral. See friends, spoil yourself, listen to your favourite play list - the short-term pleasure may lead to longer-term benefits.
And as always, eat properly - diet really affects our mood too.
SAD is a real and widespread phenomenon. But we don’t need to suffer in silence, and there are research-supported techniques we can use to defend ourselves from the Irish winter!