Who doesn't celebrate holidays for the holidays? Since the 2000 Census inexplicably failed to include your particular question, it's difficult to get a fix on non-celebrants. And since nobody wants to be accused of humbug, I suspect most Scrooges just keep their heads down as the mistletoe goes up, making it even harder to spot them. What's more, avoiding festivities during November and December is next to impossible even if you wanted to, what with Salvation Army Santas, "Barking Jingle Bells" on the radio, and Christmas office parties. Despite inappropriate employee behavior at a quarter of all office holiday bashes, 83 percent of companies in a 1998 Society for Human Resource Management survey planned to hold a holiday party (www.shrm.org). Two-thirds of these parties were scheduled outside of office hours, and 29 percent didn't permit outside guests. Who could resist such regimented fun?
There's little doubt that a lot of people would just as soon skip the season's oppressive comfort and joy. Sixty-three percent of respondents to a 1998 Dateline NBC/Prevention Magazine Holiday Stress survey said they felt pressure to do things they didn't want to do during the holidays, and 64 percent reported feeling nervous and stressed about the entire season. Money was the biggest stress factor, of course: 72 percent worry about money at least some time during the holidays, while 28 percent never give it a second thought. Judging by this particular survey, the overwhelming majority of people indulge in some sort of celebration. And even though a good 15 percent always dread the holiday season, 9 percent end up having a good time anyway. Just 6 percent of participants manage to hang on to that dread right through the New Year's celebrations.
There's one note of hope in this otherwise depressing column. According to the Suicide and Crisis Center - and contrary to popular belief - the suicide rate does not spike during the December holidays (www.sccenter.org). The highest daily suicide rate actually occurs during the summer.
Many of those experiencing seasonal stress might want to hang a better name on their condition: "subsyndromal SAD." Lying somewhere in between jolly and despondent, subsyndromal SAD is what we used to call the "winter blues," but with a new and attractive, clinical-sounding name. (Most HMOs, seeking to avoid another area needing coverage, would probably still prefer the older term.) SAD itself stands for "seasonal affective disorder," which usually takes the form of episodic depression that begins in the fall, intensifies during the winter, and eases up in the spring. (This sort of cyclical depression is nothing new to New York Rangers fans.)
SAD symptoms include a loss of interest in most activities, irritability, significant weight loss or gain, depressed moods that worsen in the morning, and suicidal thoughts. Seeing this list of symptoms, many people might equate "seasonal affective disorder" with "Monday," but SAD is a serious form of depression triggered by the shorter daylight hours during the winter months. Naturally it's more prevalent the farther north you go, with 1 percent to 5 percent of those living in middle to northern latitudes reporting SAD symptoms. Women - particularly young adults - account for 60 percent to 90 percent of those affected by this seasonal pattern of depression. Their disproportionate suffering is offset by the fact that men are the main victims of their own psychological hell: "necktie false gratitude syndrome."
Rather than reach for anti-depressant medications, SAD sufferers can offset reduced winter sunlight through the use of light therapy, which artificially increases exposure through lightboxes reproducing the intensity of sunlight. No, tripling the number of hours you stare at Baywatch Hawaii won't do it. The Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms advises that the level of light needed to treat SAD is at least 5 times that of ordinary room light (www.sltbr.org).
Light therapy has been extended to areas in which its efficacy has yet to be determined. For instance, it has been used to alleviate another potential holiday downer (and perennial businessman's bete noire): jet lag. Hilton Hotels now offers a limited number of "Sleep-Tight" rooms in its properties, where lights simulate the coming of dawn (and, inevitably, the arrival of the housekeeping staff) to help reset travelers' internal clocks.
For years we've had the awesome resources of both science and business working on the problems related to lack of daylight during the winter months (especially at higher latitudes), jet lag from flying through many time zones, and interruption of circadian cycles by working odd and/or long shifts. My question is this: Just how does Santa's workshop remain such a jolly place? Is it OSHA or is it Prozac?