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The days are shorter: don't fall into the seasonal blahs

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

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Our beautiful autumn - our crisp afternoons and pleasing zephyrs, floating leaves of gold and crimson - has turned dark.

Really dark.

We make our way home from work like moles, like miners with headlamps or cave dwellers bearing torches.

We have gone from saving daylight to chucking it, and our psyches and bodies naturally react. Or react naturally. We feel robbed of that after-work time to get things done outdoors. Even more, as the days shrink, we feel the change biologically.

We want to sleep more, eat more. The blahs come quicker.

Whose idea was this?

"I depend on the light," said Craig Lueck, a master illustrator at Hallmark. "I do like longer days. My absolute favorite times are catching the light on the way to work and the way back. Typically I have the digital camera going." (He promises he's not looking through the viewfinder with the car moving.)

Changing the clock, of course, didn't reduce the amount of daylight in 24 hours. Nature takes care of that.

By Dec. 21, the winter solstice, daylight will have shrunk to 9 hours and 27 minutes, with sunset at 4:59 p.m.

The change in sunlight patterns can play havoc with our internal clocks and daily schedules, doctors say. Feeling glum as daylight decreases and when cloudy weather persists is normal, even if it's no fun.

One answer is to change your attitude about dark days. Joe Cecil, director of the Writers Place in Kansas City, considers the dark a fine setting for the task of writing.

"Light isn't spewing over the planet," he said. "I think it's a great time for reflection."

He admits, though, that he likes morning darkness more than the late-afternoon variety.

"I would prefer to have light when I'm going home," he said. "But you can't have everything."

That's the spirit.

Barbara Loots, a writing stylist at Hallmark, said the changing light and the changing seasons inspire her. As it happened, she was writing sympathy cards last week and the gloomy weather seemed appropriate.

But what's wonderful is to see the splendor of the current season while anticipating the beauty of the next, she said.

"The trees with their colors - some of them now are skeletons of their former selves - and the gray sky, and I'm thinking about change and loss, but also about the promise of what's ahead," she said. "The sun goes down with all its colors, and we know it comes up again."

Feelings of loss and lethargy are typical as daylight decreases in the fall and as dreary weather sets in during winter. People often experience weight gain, difficulty in getting out of bed in the morning, even a lack of creativity.

But some experience more intense symptoms, a lack of energy that seriously disrupts the ability to get things done and depression that affects relationships. People with more exaggerated symptoms might have seasonal affective disorder, which may affect more than 10 million Americans.

SAD is recognized in the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual. More women than men are sufferers, many in their 30s or older. Latitude might also matter. People in Ontario have more of a risk than folks in southern America.

So what's going on biologically?

Light affects the amounts of melatonin and serotonin the body produces, scientists have found. Low light means more melatonin and feelings of lethargy. More light boosts serotonin levels in the brain, which can lead to an improved mood.

People also may have a "phase delay" in their circadian rhythm, said Raul Huet, staff psychiatrist at the Wyandot Center for Community Behavioral Healthcare. That affects sleep patterns, making it difficult to get to sleep at night and harder to wake up in the morning, he said.

Psychological factors also can play a role, Huet said. For some, the sadness brought on by darker days and dreary weather may have roots in earlier experiences, going back even to childhood. Counseling can help to find the causes, he said.

Studies have shown that many people with SAD benefit from bright light therapy, Huet said. Antidepressant medications also have been effective.

A typical course of bright light therapy makes use of a light box that provides intense light for about 30 minutes in the morning. People should talk to a doctor or therapist before buying equipment, which can cost $200 to $500, and starting therapy.

Doctors and counselors may recommend less drastic steps if symptoms are mild or are related to the winter blahs many people feel. Here are a few:

Keep the house well-lit and/or be next to a window for as much of the day as possible. Open the curtains and pull up the shades.

Make a point of taking walks outside several times a week despite the gloomy weather, or do other mood-brightening hobbies or tasks outside even if conditions aren't ideal.

Determine if you need a little more sleep in the fall and winter than you needed during summer months. Get the extra sleep you need.

Substitute healthy foods that satisfy your sweet craving, such as fruits, for candy and pastries.



Losing daylight is a sad thing, right? Here's what Hallmark's Shoebox writers have to say about it:

"Why did the man throw the clock out the window? Because he couldn't remember if it was fall forward or spring back or jump sideways or stop, drop and roll!"-Dan Taylor

"If I could turn back time, I wouldn't stop at an hour."-Deeann Stewart

"If you put off turning your clocks back an hour for six months, you don't have to worry about it." -Chris Brethwaite

"I'm working the late shift this evening,

From six until just about two.

I'll collapse with a yawn

And then snooze until dawn.

I'm saving the daylight for you!"-Scott Emmons

"So, is it `Spring ahead, fall back?'

Or, `Spring into my arms and fall back on the couch?' Yeah, I think that's it."-Bill Gray


RESOURCES ONLINE - National Mental Health Association - National Organization for Seasonal Affective Disorder - Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms SAD: Seasons change and so do our biological reactions 

--- (c) 2004, The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.


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