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Why You're Feeling Sad (and Eating Carbs)

By Martin Douglass
As the days get shorter and the northern nights get long, many of us turn into bears: we gain weight, sleep more and tend to growl at passing co-workers. What's going on?

Rather than blame the influx of in-laws or elves at the mall, we can take heart in knowing we may have an actual undiagnosed, easily treatable mental illness. Whew.

First, take a look at this list:

  • Weight gain
  • Craving carbs
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Pessimism
Are we looking in the mirror?

I'm referring, of course, to the infamous Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a well-established condition that generally starts around October and lasts until the spring. Often misdiagnosed as the flu or normal "winter blues," SAD affects upwards of 10% of people in northern states, more women than men, and is particularly hard on the Irish, for some unknown reason.

The impact of SAD on the workplace is largely unexplored territory. But it is too easy to minimize. If you happen to work in the Midwest, my HQ, or in an alehouse or fife factory, being aware of this affliction can help you understand some of your more ornery colleagues, like me.

SAD is real, and it's sad. A fascinating recent study in the Journal of Behavioral Finance examined its affect on stock analysts' earnings estimates. The results showed a clear increase in pessimism during winter months, particularly in northern latitudes. (Amusingly, the researchers said this seasonal mood swing actually seemed to make the analysts' forecasts more accurate.)

The study did not extend itself irresponsibly, so I will.

Question: When do major stock market crashes and corrections tend to happen?

Fact: The New York Stock Exchange is located in a northern latitude. Just saying.

SAD was first described by a 6th century Scandinavian historian, but it wasn't officially defined until 1984, when a National Institute of Mental Health doctor named Norman Rosenthal noticed his own depressive symptoms appeared in the fall after he moved north from South Africa to - yes, friends - New York. Its existence was demonstrated to a skeptical academy through a placebo-controlled study, and it is now included in the standard Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) as a "specifier of major depression."

Treatment can include antidepressants and behavioral therapy, but the most effective is the simplest: light. Sitting in front of a bright light for 20 minutes every morning cured me completely, and lifts the symptoms of up to 80% of sufferers. Normal office lights aren't bright enough; what's needed is a special full-spectrum light more than 10 times brighter.

Another side-effect of treating yourself in the office: every single one of your annoying co-workers will ask you, "What's with the light, bro?" Thanks to its magical rays, instead of biting their heads off, one by one, you can educate them on this serious malady that has been kept too long in the dark.

Do you have seasonal affective disorder? How have you handled it?

Martin Douglass is the pseudonym of an Emmy-nominated former TV and magazine writer who threw it all away to get an MBA. He currently toils anonymously in middle-management at a large Midwestern corporation.
Image courtesy of flickruser, basykes

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