Rabbi Dr Saul Haimoff
Did Adam Have Seasonal Affective Disorder, and is Chanukah the Cure?
Do you get down in the winter?
Do you find it harder to be motivated, exercise and eat healthy? Is it harder for you to get up in the morning? Do the dead trees, dark days and cold winds got you feeling blue? (If not, WHO ARE YOU?)
If you experience a significant increase in symptoms of depression during the winter season, you may want to know more about
seasonal affective disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder, ironically abbreviated as SAD, is a type of depression that has a seasonal pattern. Meaning, you get depressed in the winter, but not the rest of the year. Symptoms of depression include:
Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
Having problems with sleep
Feeling sluggish or agitated
Having low energy
Feeling hopeless or worthless
So what is it about winter that makes people more depressed? Turns out that a lot of it has to do with the lack of sunlight. Human beings are influenced by sunlight, just like many members of the animal kingdom. We have a part of our brain called the Suprachiasmatic
Nucleus or SCN for short, which is in charge of monitoring our circadian rhythms/sleep cycle/‘internal clock’ - based on sunlight. It sits behind the optical nerve, which is the back of the eye, and light that passes through our retinas is monitored by the SCN. You probably have heard of the sleep aid called Melatonin. Well, that is a natural hormone that our body produces, and its regulated by the amount of light we absorb. When the amount of light decreases, more melatonin is produced, and it signals to our body that it is time to sleep. Melatonin also influences other functions of our body, such as our libido (sex drive).
During the winter, when we are absorbing less daylight, our internal clocks are on ‘night mode’ more frequently. This means that we are more prone to feeling sluggish and having low energy. It kind of resembles what happens to animals who hibernate in the winter - biologically, it’s not a time that is conducive to being productive.
One treatment that has been found to be effective for treating S.A.D. is called Light Therapy. Light Therapy involves using a light box or lamp that emits light on the same frequency as daylight (there are many “sunrise simulator” alarm clocks on Amazon with great reviews!). Turning a light box on in your home or place of work during the winter has been found to significantly reduce symptoms of seasonal depression! Some studies have even found light therapy to be as effective as antidepressant medication.
So what does this all have to do with Chanukah? Well, Chanukah is always during the darkest time of winter. The nights are long, and the days are short. In fact, the Winter Solstice, which is the longest night of the year, is often during Chanukah (This year it is on December 21).
The Talmud tells an incredible story about Adam Harishon - the first human being on planet Earth. It says that after Adam was banished from the Garden of Eden (which according to our tradition took place on Rosh Hashana) - he started to notice that the days were getting shorter. The sun was setting earlier each day. It was getting colder and the leaves were starting to change colors and fall off. Everything was dying.
Adam was terrified. He thought the world was coming to an end. He thought God was slowly shutting the world down as a punishment. After all, God did say that if Adam ate from the tree, he would die. Maybe the trees and the rest of the world were being punished too!
Think about it - you are the first person alive. This is your first winter. Adam cried, and prayed, he fasted and mourned the destruction of the world, and blamed himself.
But then - something amazing happened. He noticed that the days started to get longer. A barely perceivable difference of about 1 minute per day - the daylight was extended. He observed this for 8 days and then made a holiday, the Talmud teaches.
When we light chanukah candles, we add another candle each night. We are adding to the light. We are creating a light box for the winter. A SPIRITUAL light therapy - for our souls. We are mimicking the natural order of the world. Just as the days start to get longer after the winter solstice, we add a new candle each night to resemble the increased light in our own lives. Sometimes the winter solstice actually falls out over chanukah. The days literally start to get longer in the middle of chanukah.
May we all merit to receive the benefit of the spiritual light of chanukah and to get us through the dark winter and overcome feelings of depression.