A Reason to Be a Bit Zoned Out These Days

Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

You know that barbecue of yours out on the patio? The one you fired up for a nice twilight dinner about 8 p.m. only a few weeks ago? Feels sort of odd to come home from work at 5:45 and trip over it in the dark, doesn't it?

It's just another manifestation of life in the Standard Zone, that strange world that appears each fall when millions of alarm clock knobs spin backward and daylight-saving time suddenly evaporates for the winter.

It is the final, absolute, irrevocable sign that summer is gone. For sun-loving Southern Californians who find themselves catapulted back into early nightfall, it is sometimes the signal to start cursing the darkness.

"Studies show that less hours of daylight seem to correlate with more depression, that some people tend to show a cyclic effect on their depression with less sunlight," said Dr. Patricia Moulton, a psychologist with practices in Irvine and Santa Ana. "The time change adds to that in that it puts daily living schedules into more darkness. It affects some people more than others."

When people don their winter psyche, Moulton said, their responses to the shorter days and earlier darkness can range from coziness to craziness. In fact, she said, the onset of darkness can affect some people so profoundly that psychiatrists have been known to prescribe light therapy--time spent in a lighted environment--for patients who show signs of depression brought on by exposure to darkness.

Fortunately, Southern California is one of the least-grim places to be during the short days of winter.

"In terms of mood disorders, there's a very pronounced increase in depression in the winter in northern climates and less in California," said Dr. Mark Zetin, a psychiatrist at UCI Medical Center who specializes in treating depression. "In the northern states, there are far more people who have seasonal disorders."

The potential for depression grows in proportion to the number of hours of darkness, he said. In northern Norway, for instance, the winter months bring on a darkness so continuous--there is barest sunlight at midday--that people who live in that latitude make a point of going on nightly rounds of neighborly visits for the specific purpose of bucking each other up.

Depression brought on by the one-hour change to Pacific Standard Time, however, tends to be less profound than a time zone shift of several hours, Zetin said.

He recalled a study done at London's Heathrow Airport involving travelers who had crossed several time zones and showed signs of depression. However, he said, "I don't think there's any major effect when the time shift is minor."

A more common response in Southern California is for people to retreat from the darkness by going indoors.

Restaurateurs know this well. "We definitely get that happening," said Jenifer Reeves, a hostess at the Ritz restaurant in Newport Beach. "People tend to eat when it gets dark, and when the time changes we start serving dinner at 6, and we get a lot of reservations for that time. It's the exact opposite of what happens during the summer. We get busier and busier each week."

At the Cannery restaurant on the Balboa Peninsula, the bar business picks up in the dark, general manager Annerose Beech said.

"There you can really see the trend," she said. "People come in earlier to get off the street or off the beach."

However, it would seem that the dark does not affect you if you can't see it coming. At least that's the theory put forth by Chris Smith, the manager of the Magic Pan restaurant at the enclosed South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.

"There's not much of a difference at all," he said. "We're kind of in our own little environment and atmosphere here, completely insulated from what goes on outside. If it's rainy, windy, shining, business goes on as usual inside."

However, Smith said, when he has worked at other restaurants that were exposed to the world outside, there was a direct correlation to nightfall and people's appetites.

"The sun setting really has an impact," he said. "After the time changes, (restaurant) business starts earlier and ends earlier."

For the police, however, business continues as usual. According to officers of the Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Anaheim and Orange police departments, the onset of early darkness has little or no effect on crime.

Similarly, though children may go home earlier and families may spend more time inside their houses, reports of family violence do not appear to increase in the darker months, said Bob Malmberg, the social services supervisor of the Orange County Child Abuse Registry.

There is, however, one reaction to the fall time change--at least initially--that may be the most common and certainly one of the most positive.

"Personally," Moulton said, "I really like having that extra hour in the morning."

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