As we experience less and less natural darkness in our lives, however, it has become the very thing we need to move towards, both physically and psychologically.
The heart of darkness
Light is a wonderful thing. Traditionally it represents inspiration and spiritual wisdom, while natural light gives us the warmth and clarity we need to live. By contrast, darkness is cold, we are often afraid of it, and being "in the dark" keeps us ignorant. As we experience less and less natural darkness in our lives, however, it has become the very thing we need to move towards, both physically and psychologically.
Most of us live in a world that is too bright. In addition to a naturally sunny climate, our towns and cities positively buzz with artificial light because they are highly industrialised and densely populated. We suffer the irritating lights that intrude on otherwise naturally low-lit settings such as street lights, car lights and illuminated advertising, and face excessive unnatural light inside our homes, from media screens to night lights left on for children.
Research has shown that such light pollution not only adversely affects our environment and its ecosystems, but also our health and well-being, leading to increased anxiety, headaches and tiredness. We need daily doses of total darkness because it's darkness that triggers our bodies to produce melatonin, a hormone that aids sleep and helps our minds and bodies to work properly, stabilising our biological clocks and regulating our circadian rhythms, our bodily cycles that are repeated every 24 hours.
If we don't have the total "up" of light and the "down" of real darkness, we become like elderly people, feeling continually lethargic rather than experiencing genuine and healthy phases of activity and rest. After a while, this affects everything about us, including appetite, blood pressure and cognitive behaviour. Irregular melatonin production has even been linked to cancer. As with all things associated with our well-being, when our bodies react to an over-illuminated world, so do our minds. Studies have shown that while people living in Northern Europe experience SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) during the winter because of a lack of light, the other extreme can be even more detrimental. In climes such as northern Scandinavia, for example, it's actually during the endless daylight of the summer that they see a sharp increase in depression and suicides. Too much light makes our minds agitated and uptight, over-alert and poised for danger.
It isn't realistic to assume that most of us can move out of towns and cities, but there are things that could help. Buy blackout curtains or wear eye shades at night, turn more lights and electrical appliances off at home, use your computer, mobile phone and BlackBerry less, spend more time under your duvet. You also need to get out of your town or city on a regular basis. If it's been a long while since you experienced true darkness, I'd recommend going on a proper overnight desert safari to get a massive dose. My first taste of it was in the Sinai desert of Egypt - a beautiful, remote place to see the stars, moon and absolutely nothing else.
Many of us suffer from a real fear of such darkness. On one level it's a natural survival instinct to have a wariness of totally dark places, because one of our senses has been removed and so we are vulnerable. But our ability to use such instincts has become distorted in a too-light world, making us irrationally distrust the very thing we need. We're afraid of the dark because we imagine negative things that might happen under its cover - like anxiety, fear is based on something that has yet to happen. To allow more darkness into our lives, however, we need to be able to relax into it.
We can look to practitioners of behavourial therapies such as NLP (neurolinguistic programming) for a few tips on how to do this. Their work draws on the connection between our thoughts and our behaviour, and they believe that by changing one we can change the other. If we avoid darkness with too much light, it reinforces our belief that the world is a big, bad place we need to control. Overcoming our fear of darkness, however, may make us less anxious about the rest of our lives, because it helps us have more confidence that the world is much safer than we thought. Like light, darkness can be a wonderful thing - it's just a question of balance.
Caroline Sylger Jones is the author of Body & Soul Escapes and Body & Soul Escapes: Britain and Ireland, compendiums of places to retreat and replenish around the world. See www.carolinesylgerjones.co.uk