The return of load-shedding last week has been met with an array of emotions ranging from disillusionment to outrage. Anxiety and depression seem to be the new norm in clinical practice but aside from the obvious socio-economic and political stresses surrounding load-shedding, there may be biological reasons behind why being in the dark is making everyone more stressed and depressed.
How does being the dark make us more anxious?
There are several reasons behind why I feel that load-shedding might make us unnaturally anxious and depressed. Here are a few:
1. The survival response: We have all experienced that feeling where suddenly everything plunges into darkness, you gasp, your muscles tense and your heart beats faster. In that instant, your brain perceives that you are in danger. It sends an alarm signals to the adrenal glands. Adrenaline, Noradrenaline and Cortisol flood the body, diverting blood to the muscles, brain and heart, enabling us to focus more clearly, see better, run faster and fight harder. This is our typical flight/ fight, survival response (anxiety response). The instinctive behaviours which occur under the influence of adrenaline in our bodies are reflexive in nature and are closely associated with certain memory centres in the brain, meaning that the anxiety response can become a learned behaviour which can be easily triggered by small changes in the environment which are similar to previous situations in which we were in danger. In the instant where we are suddenly plunged into load-shedding darkness, our pupils dilate quickly to allow us to adjust our vision to the darkened environment. The brain remembers this as an important part of our previous flight/ fight responses and thinks that we are under attack. It notifies our bodies that we are in danger and we create an anxiety response in the absence of an actual threat.
2. Abnormal sleep patterns: One of the circulating theories regarding the development of anxiety and mood disorders (such as depression), is that it is not the anxiety/ depression which causes the sleep disturbance but a sleep disturbance which brings about anxiety/ depression. Normal sleep patterns occur in response to 3 separate factors, namely:
i. What is your personal norm? (norms are anything between 4 and 10 hours per night…it’s not a standard 8 hours just because google says it is.)
ii. How long have you been awake? The longer you stay awake, the more tired you will be
iii. Circadian rhythm – melatonin is a hormone which is released by the brain in response to darkness. It helps us to sleep properly by regulating body temperature. Sunlight and the light from electronics interfere with normal melatonin secretion.
In response to load-shedding, our normal day-night variations in response to light and dark are turned upside down. We also tend to sleep at irregular times because of the abnormal timing of load-shedding. This can cause severe disruption in our normal sleep patterns, resulting in daytime sleepiness, poor concentration, fatigue and inability to complete tasks. The resultant dysfunction at work, home and in social functioning, can all worsen anxiety and depression.
What to do about it?
There is very little we can do to change load-shedding. However, being aware of the underlying effects, is an important step towards managing how it affects us.
Some important tips to stay calm with load-shedding:
1. Keep your regular sleeping patterns and routines, even when the lights go out at abnormal times.
2. Make use of load-shedding by practicing some mindfulness, meditation or by exercising (it is often extraordinarily peaceful when there is no electricity)
3. Don’t rely on sleeping pills, tranquilisers or other supplements to assist with sleep or anxiety management
4. Be prepared (meals, power banks, lamps etc). This reduces the anxiety related to an unpredictable environment.
If in doubt speak to your healthcare practitioner.
Happy load-shedding 🙂
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