Several orbits ago, while folks at the more extreme latitudes again fell into their annual funk, a few shrinks noted a pattern. Enough people became distressed by the coming winter that they bought an entry into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-Fourth Edition, and now had a diagnosis--seasonal affective disorder--justifying the use of expensive psychotropic agents to make them "happy."
As more and more of us become naturalized citizens of Prozac nation, a few cranky souls remain prescription-drug1 free, titrating the available OTC medicines with caffeine, alcohol, and herbs, surviving yet another winter.
What symptoms make the diagnosis of SAD?
(1) increased rather than decreased sleep;
(2) increased rather than decreased appetite and food intake with carbohydrate craving;
(3) marked increase in weight;
(5) interpersonal difficulties (especially rejection sensitivity), and
(6) leaden paralysis (a heavy, leaden feeling in the arms or legs).
Surveys estimate that 4 to 6 percent of the general population experience winter depression, and another 10 to 20 percent have subsyndromal features.2
To summarize, about a quarter of otherwise normal human beings sleep more, eat more, gain weight, and get irritable in the winter, just like any other self-respecting mammal that wandered too far from the Equator since the last Ice Age.
Let me review the annual cataclysmic events that should shake anybody's sense of complacency in this wonderful and truly terrifying world of ours:
1) Every winter, most plants either die or go into suspended animation. The vast majority of our crops die here. In my garden, half ripe eggplants hang like bruised egos in the dying light of December. My tomato vines are black, gnarled skeletons. The basil plants are but a memory.
If the crops fail in the spring, we could starve. Instead of worrying all winter, a few of us choose to stuff our bellies as full as we can with last year's surplus, then sleep.
2) The air becomes so dry that mild patches of eczema and psoriasis turn into vast swaths of reptilian skin, repulsing friends and family, who are all just as irritable as you.
Now I'm flaky, fat, and fearful, living under forced solitude--feeling happy just upsets the natural order of things.
3) In New Jersey, the sun rose at 5:26 AM on June 21, 2008, and set at 8:32 PM., over 15 hours of sweet, summer rays. On December 21, the sun will rise at 7:18 AM, barely peek over the horizon, then plunge back down at 4:32 PM--just over 9 hours of dull winter light. That depresses me. If you are paying any attention, it will depress you, too.
4) Look at those bills! Paying for the juice of long dead ferns to keep my home heated condemns me to long hours at work. I know air-conditioning is expensive, too, but AC is a luxury. Heat keeps you alive. You have no choice.
Sleeping late under a cozy comforter lets me keep the heat turned down longer, and saves money.
5) The local roads freeze, and the December demolition derby begins; debt-ridden SUV owners try to justify their monstrous credit-eating over-sized sedans by driving like crazed maniacs in icy conditions.
I can hardly blame them--if I plunked 35 grand after watching commercials in which the SUV climbed perpendicularly up a snow-covered mountain, I'd expect my car to handle a level road. They do go nicely perpendicular into ditches, though.
What is a rational person to do? Seems like crawling into the bed under a comforter with a huge bag of Doritos while others careen to work on icy highways makes perfect sense.
Feeling down? Little wonder. I just don't think that it is a disorder. Nor do I think my annual spring fever is a problem. Watching the Earth spring back to life deserves some manic dancing. Come April, I'll look at this post and wonder how I could ever have been so grumpy. Until then, I am going to bed.
2S. Atezaz Saeed, M.D., and Timothy J. Bruce, Ph.D., American Family Physician, March 15, 1998.