One of my personal struggles is the way sunset makes me feel. On a bright sunny day I can be absolutely fine and as soon as the sun starts to drop my anxiety levels rise. In the summer when my base level of emotion is pretty ok this isn’t really an issue, but in the winter that can make low day crippling. In the summer, by the time the sun is setting I’m home and preparing for bed, in the winter I have to deal with work, face the drive home and maybe even do the groceries. It can take all my grit and determination to walk into that supermarket sometimes.
Just recently I spent a weekend at a friends house in Wales. I left there at 4pm and started my 3 hour journey. As soon as the sun started to lower in the sky I could feel myself worrying about driving home. I had to talk myself through that whole journey. Interestingly, once the light levels have transitioned through sunset into full dark I felt so much better and the anxiety drifted away. This confirmed my belief that sunset affects me.
So, what’s causing it?
I tried to do some internet research but found that this is only really recognised in dementia and elderly patients but I have found other people, both with SAD and more classic anxiety or depression symptoms, mentioning this with little explanation as to the cause. There must be a reason so I gave it a ponder. What I came up with, and this has no scientific background at all, I would suggest it has a connection to our basic survival instinct.
I like to consider the evolution of the human race when understanding what is going on with my SAD. Looking back through our past it has only been in the last few hundred years where it has been safe to be outdoors after dark. For millennia our world has been filled with dangers at night and we probably evolved with a sense of when it was time to head back to the cave for safety. Of course our lives have changed drastically but the evolution of our brain chemistry is a long way behind.
So when those of us who are already sensitive to light levels are away from “the cave” it is understandable when the alarm bells go off as light levels drop. We already feel anxious and unable to deal with what life throws at us, when the innate fear of bears and lions is added to the mix we are likely to reach a high level of anxiety.
So what do we do?
I have probably mentioned before that when I am at work I use a small light box all day. It’s probably no brighter than 2500 lux but it is enough to keep my brain working. In the past I would obediently turn it off around 3pm aware that any longer and I might disrupt my sleep pattern.
Back in 2014 I decided to risk poor sleep to see what would happen if I left my light on until I left work at 5pm. To my amazement and utter joy I found that I not longer experienced the same levels of anxiety. I could go into the supermarket and get my shopping without gripping the trolley with whitened knuckles.
It appears to me that in using my light through the sunset period I stave off the effect it has on me and skip straight into feeling better when it is fully dark. Of course when I am away from my light I still need to be aware of what is going on, but this has been a revolution for me.
So, if you are one of those that finds your anxiety levels rise as the sun sets tune into your fears and see if it is a desire to hide and get safe that you are feeling. If this is the case, turn on the lights, as bright as you can find them, and see if that helps.