Brown-Eyed And SAD

In the Midwest, Seasonal Affective Disorder (aptly known as SAD) is a real issue.  During the months between November and March, when the days are short and the skies are almost unrelentingly gray and gloomy — like this picture I took on Saturday from our back steps — lots of otherwise sturdy and resilient Midwesterners find themselves down in the dumps and absolutely sick to death of overcast weather.

Scientists are taking SAD seriously and have conducted several studies of the condition.  The data indicates that about five percent of Americans experience SAD — I’d be willing to bet that the percentage is a lot higher in the Midwest during the winter months — and women are about four times as likely to have the condition as men.  And now a study has concluded that people with brown eyes may be more likely to experience the SAD symptoms.  The study also indicated that blue-eyed people, in contrast, are less affected by the lack of sunlight.

Why would eye color matter?  Sunlight affects mood and vitality through the eyes.  The author of the paper about the study hypothesizes that “the blue eye mutation was selected as a protective factor from SAD as sub-populations of humans migrated to northern latitudes.” The mutation that led to blue eye color occurred about 10,000 years ago and was thought to simply be associated with “the general package of pale skin in northern latitudes.”  The scientist now thinks that “given that frequencies of blue eye coloration reach their highest proportions in the most northerly latitudes of Europe, and given SAD rates reach their highest figures at the most northerly latitudes, then another possibility is that the blue eye mutation is maintained in such areas in order to alleviate the effects of SAD.”  In short, in the northern climates natural selection may have advantaged people with the blue-eyed mutation because they were more capable of dealing with the gloom than their brown-eyed friends and therefore were more likely to survive and reproduce.

It’s now the SAD season in the Midwest.  Fortunately, I’m not brown-eyed.   My eyes are a bright burnt sienna, and I’m not prone to SAD.  But lots of people around here are, and I sympathize with their reaction to the grayness.  Many Midwest snowbirds head south not so much in search for warmth as in search for sunlight.

 

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A Non-SAD Day

Yesterday we saw an odd phenomenon in Columbus:  the sun was out, the sky was a brilliant blue, and there were actually shadows on the ground.

If you think that’s not a big deal, that’s because you haven’t spent a winter in Columbus.  Columbus is one of the cloudiest cities in the United States during the core winter months of December, January, and February.  According to statistics compiled by the National Climatic Data Center, Columbus experiences dense cloud cover on 67 percent of the days during those three months.  That puts Columbus 7th on a dubious national list of the cloudiest major cities in the country during the winter.  (Portland, Seattle, and Buffalo are the top three.)

And I’m not sure that the 67 percent figures really captures the bleakness of a Columbus winter, either.  The NCDC “dense cloud” standard purports to measure the grey (or in some cases, white) winter days when more than three-quarters of the sky is covered in cloud.  That doesn’t mean that the other 33 percent of Columbus days feature bright sunshine, it just means that they don’t quite reach the required three-quarter cloud cover standard.  So, they might be two-thirds cloud cover, or half cloud cover.  A day where the sky is a bright blue, like yesterday, is as rare as hen’s teeth.

Columbus is not a place where you’d choose to spend the winter if you’ve got Seasonal Affective Disorder — but it you have to be here, regardless, you relish the non-SAD days, and you try to remember that the spring, summer, and fall days will restore your spirits.

Pondering Duluth

In Columbus we are feeling sorry for ourselves, because this winter has been terrible, with multiple days of sub-zero temperatures and lots of snow. (Of course, it’s snowing, again, as I write this.) People try to maintain a positive attitude about it, and the weather is a frequent topic of conversation and gallows humor, but you can tell it’s having an impact. Psychologists say the harsh winter across much of the country has caused an increase in the number of people dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

All of which raises a question: how in the world do people live in Duluth, Minnesota?

Duluth is a port city at the western edge of Lake Superior and is home to more than 80,000 hardy souls. This year, Duluth set a record for the most consecutive days in which the temperature fell below zero. For 23 consecutive days — from January 19 until at least February 11 — Duluthers had to deal with day after frigid day of sub-zero conditions. What’s more, Duluth is likely to set the record for the most days of below-zero temperatures in a winter. As of February 11, the temperature in Duluth had fallen below zero on 56 days, and the all-time record is 59 days. Oh yes . . . and the lake on which Duluth sits is almost completely frozen over.

How do the 80,000+ residents of Duluth do it? How do they steel themselves to deal with day after day of brutal, invasive cold, skin scorched raw by frigid air, and frozen scarves, stocking caps, and balaclavas. How do they face the mass amounts of snowfall, constant use of snow blowers and snow shovels, and looking out over a gray, frozen lake? What tricks or secrets could Duluthers teach the rest of us to help us maintain a positive outlook in the face of winter’s onslaught?

They must really like ice fishing.

When Darkness Season Falls

Some people celebrate the extra hour of sleep we gain when we “fall back” every autumn.  Other people dread that day, because the simple act of turning back the clocks ushers in a season of seemingly constant darkness.

It’s dark when we get up in the morning, dark when we drive to work, and dark when we sit at our desks and turn to our work.  It’s dark when we we leave at night, dark as we drive home, and dark when we walk into our front doors.  When you couple the shroud of darkness with the unrelentingly overcast, wet, and cold weather that characterizes a Midwestern winter, you have concocted a powerfully grim brew that many people find difficult to handle.  There’s a reason why seasonal affective disorder has been defined by health care professionals.

I think there are two keys to successfully handling the darkness season.  First, maximize your exposure to daylight.  Get out of the building and into the open air for lunch and on weekend days, and if the skies are clear turn your face sunward.  Even the shriveled intensity of the winter sun is better than no sun at all.

Second, during the dark hours at home, always have a project to work on.  It might be reading a collection by a favorite author, or baking Christmas cookies, or updating your iPod.  One winter Kish and I decided to watch The Sopranos from beginning to end, and it was a very enjoyable exercise that helped to make the days go faster.  The projects will help to occupy the idle hours and leave you with a feeling of accomplishment — and perhaps even an appreciation for the darkness season and the opportunities it offers.

S.A.D. Dance

This is the time of year when everyone in the Midwest tries to figure out whether they have Seasonal Affective Disorder — S.A.D. for short.

S.A.D. is a condition that is associated with the winter.  The symptoms will sound familiar to anyone who has experienced a Midwest winter:  weight gain, depression, increased sleep, lack of energy, withdrawal from social activities, and feeling sluggish and irritable.  They think that S.A.D. may be caused by a lack of ambient light and changes in body temperature.  Given these symptoms and causes, how in the world do they distinguish people who have S.A.D. from people who just hate the winter and grimly plug ahead through the cold, and the wet, and endless sunless days?  How many people out there love icy blasts and revel in the overwhelming greyness of a Midwestern winter?  Are there people who are actually excited about a day when the overcast sky is battleship grey rather than slate grey or platinum?

I sometimes wonder about the “discovery” of these new emotional conditions.  After all, people were dealing with winter for millennia before somebody decided there was a condition called S.A.D. Centuries ago, when native Americans toughed it out during the harsh Midwestern winters, were braves and squaws afflicted with S.A.D.?  If so, how did the chief react when Brave Eagle overslept and wasn’t able to take down a deer or buffalo because he felt sluggish?  And did the tribes perform some kind of traditional S.A.D. dance to try to convince the Great Spirit that it was high time to bring an end to the dim, frigid days?