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Winter of Discontent

‘No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! – November!’ go the infamously bad lines of Victorian rhymester Thomas Hood. For worthier lyrics, take Tom Waits’ hoarse take on Hood’s pome: ‘No shadow / No stars / No moon / No cars / November.’ OK, we got the message. The month of Scorpio sucks big time.

If you have a tendency for depression, chances are ten to one that you emotionally suffer through the end of the year: autumnal melancholy easily slips into deep wintertime depression. The reasons are as murky as the November sky, but one thing the shrinks, who are fully booked and busy this time of the year, unanimously agree on: patients who got the blues – stricken with spleen, as Thomas Hood would put it poetically – are particularly susceptible and sensitive to light, and more so to the lack of it.

“It is written in our genes, all coded in biology,” says Dr. László Lakatos, psychiatrist and therapist at Dr. Rose Private Hospital. “Biochemical processes in the nervous system of the human brain are affected by how ionized the air that we breathe is. The concentration of negative charged ions is higher in springtime. How sensitive we are is determined by our genetic code. The amount of natural light also plays a significant part in our shifting mood. Clinical trials proved that exposing patients to more light – even artificial light that bears certain physical characteristics of sunlight – measurably raised their spirits. Light therapy is apparently most effective early in the morning.”

Obviously the dark, somber November mornings raise all but the ravens’ spirits. The alarm goes off in the dark, when our internal clock is still ticking sleepy-sleep. No wonder that we start the morning knackered, and sleepwalk through the rest of the day. Fatigue turns into general inertness. Inactivity leads to cocooning – one becomes increasingly introverted and less outgoing, losing the drive to socialise. By not going out, one gets less exposure to natural light, which completes the vicious circle.

“Light therapy, antidepressants, deep-magnet brain stimulation, and psychotherapy offer various ways to treat the downbeat mood,” says Dr. Lakatos. “We recommend light therapy to begin with. It doesn’t always help, typical ‘night owls’ can even get worse from early exposure to light therapy. Low self-esteem and negative thinking are a common denominator in depressed patients, so psychotherapy is a cardinal part of the treatment.”

Needless to say, the patient could be the best doctor: a healthy diet, with less carbs and more Omega-3 fatty acids, can work miracles. Consciously socialising, going out and seeing people, doing sports and staying active are the self-explanatory measures to keep depression at bay. Let there be light in your life, it’s a doctor’s order: Start the day with a therapeutic light bath, light up a candle for your meal, wear colourful clothes, take long walks, especially before noon. Do what makes you the happiest. If all these efforts fail, then one really needs to seek professional help. Combining medication, therapy and substitute light are usually enough to make the winter of discontent somewhat more glorious.

Good to know

It might seem logical that the further north we go, winter depression becomes more widespread. Wrong assumption. Studying the people of bleak Alaska, where the sun barely rises above the horizon for four hours in midwinter, researchers found that the rate of depression was no higher than in Europe. Genetic predisposition to depression is the key factor, while the lack of light is only a catalyst that triggers the symptoms this time of the year.