To Self-help or not to Self-help, that is the Question?
Researching for a Self-help book that you are writing does not justify you claiming to be an expert on the subject but it does allow you, after sufficient delving, to claim to be a conduit of information. Such as the fact that laboratory mice live twice as long in daylight as they do under artificial light. This is not pseudo science. Yet as I work on a book about the benefits of light to our daily lives. I realise it is becoming harder and harder to rebut the critics who deem the mushrooming array of anonymouses and its offshoot industry, Self- help books, to be just a synonym for ‘psychobabble’.
For there is now a pejorative ring to the term ‘Self-help’, but is it justified?
For there is now a pejorative ring to the term ‘Self-help’, but is it justified?
Amongst the circle of people I know criticisms of the Self-help phenomenon are pretty vocal. “These days, you cope with the burden of your failings by redefining them. Smoking, stealing, having illicit sex, none of it is any longer your doing. Because you eradicate the problem by couching it in destigmatising language and ‘Hey Presto’ none of it is your responsibility, because guess what, you had an ‘illness’. We have been fed the disease model; drug abuse, sex addiction, compulsive eating, compulsive lying, compulsive shopping, compulsive gambling - now they are all deemed diseases.”
Then there was an uber sceptic friend of mine, over a recent lunch. “Even liberated women friends of mine are buying into ‘this’. What’s the latest ‘premenstrual syndrome’ and ‘postpartum depression?’ women are being conditioned to think of themselves as slaves to their hormonal governance. God Bless America for exporting their 12 step template. By the way if you are in healthy and loving relationship and you want to come on one of these more extremes self-help programmes, then you better start questioning that relationship, for you have to forsake this excessive or unhealthy concern for others - for in the twelve-step universe of self help, such excessive concern for one other person constitutes the pitiable emotional quagmire of co-dependency. And if you think that is rubbish then you are ‘in denial’. What Self-help has done is champions the selfish self.” With friends like these...
However you would have to agree that a 12 step victimisation template has seeped into our cultural consciousness. For AA, NA, OA, brand of mainstream victimisation will seek to explain to you that every human frailty is a function of some hardwired predisposition or inescapable social root. You have to forgive yourself for all those awful things you did, because you only did those beastly things because you were trapped by your makeup or environment. Anyway if you have failings, just dig deep enough for the fatalistic patterns in your personality and you will be afforded an acceptable rationalisation. For there will always be a guilty fault line to blame releasing you of any responsibility; “Grandfather was an alcoholic, Uncle Albert is as compulsive as a mountain rescue dog, and my grandmother... in fact all the females in my family ran to fat. No wonder I am putting on so much weight.”
Now my sceptical friend is asking me, “So what is all this guff about light?” “Well SAD, or seasonal affective disorder is an illness recognised by the World Health Organisation.” “What causes it?” “It is said to be caused by an imbalance between the hormone Melatonin and the neuro transmitter Serotonin. Melatonin is sometime referred as ‘the Hormone of Darkness’. It increases as we get sleepy at night. The yang of this yin is Serotonin: a neuro transmitter which has various functions including the regulation of mood, appetite, sleep, muscle contraction, and some cognitive functions including memory and appetite. An imbalance between the two is said to cause SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). “So if our ‘Business Minister’ Lord Mandelson was a hormone he would be Melatonin,” she offers chirpily.
I endeavour to keep our conversation under the umbrella of science, so I say to her, “If I were to light a candle and put it one metre away from you it would produce one Lux of light. Lux is the term used to evaluate luminosity. The light bulb in the room (an environmental 40 watt) is giving out 400 Lux; on a gloomy day like this, if we were to go out for a walk now, we would immediately be getting 20,000 Lux.” “By just being in the daylight? Well, let’s get out there,” says my friend with new found enthusiasm, and we set off to explore the beneficence of nature.
We walk and look at the trees, the leafs are changing colour. The park we are walking in is by a school; students assemble in knots on the benches and grass. “Did you know there is less crime where there are green spaces.” “Is that a fact?” “Yes, it is.” I also remind her that there has been a massive change in the last century in how we live. There is 1440 minutes in the day, and it is approximated that one minute of that day is spent in the countryside. It is estimated now that we spend 95% of our time indoors. These days it is we live under artificial light practically ‘24/7’. We pass another school, it is a gloomy Victorian building and I think of research on light where students improve academically if placed near windows and if the room is generally lighter. There have been numerous studies done to verify this.
In the distance we see another architectural monstrosity, a prison. UK and US citizens seem to be desirous of this architecture of cruelty. For a prison is supposed to be a place of punishment; therefore, it should look like a place of punishment. Unlike in some Scandinavian countries where prisons are built with the intention of the inmates getting as much light as possible; the Swedes and Norwegian realising that imaginative use of light in design will cut future social costs. It would appear if you have less light you think differently about it. Once in Stockholm I saw a tough guy walk into a Bar, slap his kroner on the counter and say ‘Give me a beer and a light box.”
. “If we widen the parameters,” I said on leaving her at the Underground, “Self-help can be seen as lots of things. “Such as?” “Well, the Bible for instance, is that not a self-help manual?” “I don’t need help on bringing my soul nearer to God.” “Well, how about a book on improving your chess by bringing your pawns nearer your king, that’s self-help too.” She seems unconvinced
I leave her at the underground station and return home. It is getting darker; I have a desire to get home and pull up the covers - my hibernation mode kicking in. This hardwired feeling for us to hide away, is due to the hormonal changes from decreased light and temperature, So If you feel like retreating in the winter you are reacting to our animal urge to take cover and lie dormant. The problem with our current mode of dealing with our hardwired hibernation instinct – being seduced by a night in front of that giant blinking eye in the corner (television) is just a mode for piling on the ‘carbs’. Added to this is the amount of time we spend in cars and it is no wonder we have a problem with obesity. Simply put, we have got to get out more and on foot to get our daily dose of Lux.
I look up at the sky; there are rays of light shafting through the clouds. I think of the 16 year old Einstein out walking and wishing he could jump on one of those rays. So I am in good company as I contemplate another evening of research on light.
SAD Overcoming Seasonal Affective Disorder by Fiona Marshall and Dr Peter Cheevers is published by Sheldon Press.
SAD facts: SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is recognised as an illness by the World Health Organisation
SAD symptoms: Lethargy, low self esteem and depression. The usual characteristics of recurrent winter depression include oversleeping, daytime fatigue, carbohydrate craving and weight gain. Additionally, there are the usual features of depression, especially decreased sexual interest, lethargy, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, lack of interest in normal activities, and social withdrawal
Who does SAD affect? 10% of the population. Those living in Northern latitudes (Scandinavians) and those who live in the northern United States and Canada are eight times as likely to experience it as those living farther south. It affects woman more than men. Four times as many women develop it as men.
Patterns of SAD: Symptoms of winter SAD usually begin in October or November and subside in March or April. The most common characteristic of people with winter SAD is their reaction to changes in environmental light. Patients living at different latitudes note that their winter depressions are longer and more profound the farther north they live. Patients with SAD also report that their depression worsens or reappears whenever the weather is overcast at any time of the year, or if their indoor lighting is decreased.
Treatments for SAD: Phototherapy is commercially available in the form of light boxes, which are used for approximately 30 minutes daily. The light required must be of sufficient brightness, approximately 25 times as bright as a normal living room light. Contrary to prior theories, the light does not need to be actual daylight from the sun. It seems that it is quantity, not necessarily quality of light that matters in the light treatment of seasonal affective disorder. Light boxes are now freely available in stores and on the Internet. To be effective a light box must emit a minimum of 2500 Lux. Most All the light boxes emit 10000 Lux, giving the user an efficient and speedy treatment
SAD and the natural way: By far the most effective way to get rapid relief from SAD is to get more exposure to natural daylight. Not only is this the most effective treatment, it is also completely free!