Light has the power to alter our mood, motivate religious rituals and inspire writers, thinkers and artists. So what happens when we don't get enough of it?
As anyone who has gazed at the sun rising or setting can attest, sunlight can have a transformative affect on us. During the winter months though, getting even five minutes of the sun’s rays on our skin can be near impossible.
For many of us, short days, busy schedules and artificially-lit homes and offices mean a hankering for Netflix, duvets and hot chocolate. Yes, it’s the season of the winter blues when we feel tired, unmotivated and, in extreme cases, depressed.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a complex type of depression that generally occurs in the winter months. In the UK, about three percent of the population are estimated to suffer from SAD, which can cause problems with sleep, carbohydrate cravings leading to weight gain and, in extreme cases, a complete inability to carry out a normal routine. Research is still patchy on exactly what causes SAD, though it is most likely triggered by lack of sunlight, which influences levels of the hormones melatonin and serotonin in the part of the brain controlling mood, sleep and appetite – our circadian rhythms.
The antidote to our northern hemisphere woes is, of course, light. In Scandinavia, where seasonal peaks of sorrow brought about by the almost complete absence of sunlight in winter are recorded as far back as the sixth century and there is a long history of inventive solutions to combat it.
"could a shift towards a more positive regard of winter darkness be what we need?"
Light experiments aside, could a shift towards a more positive regard of winter darkness be just as important? Judging by the popularity of the Hygge trend in the UK a few years ago, yes. More than sheep-skin rugs, socks and tea-lights, this defining characteristic of Danish culture aims to engender a feeling of contentment and well-being by creating cosiness and comfortable opportunities for connection.
What to do if you think you have SAD
For serious cases of SAD, a daily dose is needed. The Royal College of Psychiatrists strongly recommends seeking as much exposure to natural light as possible in winter.
Bright light in the morning is particularly effective as it suppresses any residual melatonin that could be making us sleepy, and provides a signal to the brain’s master clock that keeps it synchronised with the 24-hour cycle of light and dark. The idea is it therefore strengthens our internal rhythms, so that when night comes around again, we feel sleepy at the correct time.
Our brains have not caught up with our contemporary lifestyles of working inside an office all day long, so something as small as a morning walk and taking a lunch-break outdoors can make a difference to our feelings of wellbeing. Many people also find using a specialist light box containing very bright Fluorescent tubes which mimic the sun’s rays to be an effective treatment.
It’s no wonder that depression is often expressed in terms of darkness. The ‘dark night of the soul’ is a term that goes back centuries to mean a loss of hope and deep sense of meaningless. Winston Churchill famously referred to his malady as the ‘black dog’, while one of the first very public accounts of the descent into the depths of clinical depression and back was the 1989 memoir by American novelist and essayist, William Styron, aptly named, Darkness Visible.
Equally, the symbolism of light and shade has inspired countless visionaries, writers and artists as a means of expressing what it is to be a messy and flawed human. The 19th Century American poet, Emily Dickinson said of it, “Phosphorescence. Now there’s a word to lift your hat to… to find that phosphorescence, that light within, that’s the genius behind poetry.”
Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous anti-racism sermon and later from his book Strength to Love, said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” In fiction too, the wisdom of J.K. Rowling was spoken in the words of Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when he said, “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That's who we really are."
Leonard Cohen communicated the impossibility of having one without the other with the words, “There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.”
Shame and vulnerability researcher and best-selling author of Rising Strong, Brene Brown, shares these sentiments in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection writing, “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
The redemptive power of light and rituals designed to worship it are a mainstay of many religious practices, particularly at this time of year. For Christians, preparations for Christmas involve lighting candles in honour of the birth of Jesus, who they believe is the light of the world.
I was raised in the Christian tradition and have vivid memories of Christingle (Christ light) services on Christmas Eve. I can still feel a sticky orange in my hands, trying desperately not to burn myself on the candle pushed into its centre or drop the sweets stuck into it with cocktail sticks. Of course I think I was more concerned with the sweets than any representations of Jesus’s light, but as rituals go, it’s one of the sweetest in my memory.
One of the biggest light festival in the world though is Diwali, the festival of light celebrated by Hindus, which takes place between mid-October and mid-December. The festival involves lighting small clay lamps for five days and nights to signify the triumph of good over evil. Jewish people around the world, celebrate their Festival of Light, also known as Hanukkah or Chanukah, over eight-days in November or December.
Hanukkah commemorates a miracle which followers of the Jewish faith believe took place when the Temple in Jerusalem needed to be re-dedicated after a war. There was only enough oil to light the menorah for one day but it remained lit for the eight days needed to prepare new oil. During Hanukkah, a nine-branched candelabrum, based on the original menorah, is lit every evening at nightfall with the ninth candle in the middle used to light the others.
Whether you choose to worship the sun by the pool in a country closer to the equator to banish the winter blues, or participate in a light festival or spiritual practice closer to home, light at this time of year takes on a special significance. I’ll be working with the rhythms of nature using a more modern invention. Cold, dark mornings are made that much more bearable with the gentle simulated sunrise of my Lumie alarm clock which I've found I can't live without.
Morning walk, religious ritual or lightbox therapy, how are you going to make time for a daily dose of light this winter? Let me know in the comments below.
This article originally appeared in the winter issue of KX Quarterly. My full portfolio can be found at www.tamsincrimmens.co.uk (in case you're interested).
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