Pic © Matt Bristow, UNP
While few of us enjoy the dark days of winter, those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – a depressive illness caused by shortened daylight hours and a lack of sunlight – will find this time of year especially challenging. Symptoms, which include depression, anxiety and lethargy, can cause discomfort, be totally debilitating, and leave many unable to function.
Helen Hanson, a 64-year-old artist printmaker from Deal in Kent, had her first experience of SAD aged 13. Following a severe bout of winter ’flu she suffered from anxiety, depression and a loss of confidence, but started to feel better as the summer months approached. As she got older, she developed a dislike of winter and noticed that she was finding it difficult to get out of bed on dark mornings. She also began experiencing feelings of despair.
Back then Helen didn’t connect her feelings to the seasons, although she now thinks she has probably suffered from Subsyndromal-SAD (a milder form of the condition with less acute symptoms) for most of her adult life. However, it took many years before she found out exactly what was wrong.
She recalls: “When I was 40, I moved from a light modern flat to a dark, Edwardian terraced house. I developed winter ’flu followed by labyrinthitis, which affected my balance, leaving me stuck inside feeling sick and dizzy. Then I developed a post-viral depression, which went away as the summer approached. However, it came back in September and my life practically came to a standstill.”
‘I didn’t make the connection between winter and my feelings as I didn’t know there was one’
During the next three years Helen felt low during winter and happier in summer. Although aware of her dislike of darkness and bad weather, she had no idea these were the cause of her problems and instead blamed herself for feeling depressed.
“I didn’t make the connection between the winter and my feelings, because I didn’t know there was one,” she says.
“I tried self-help remedies such as acupuncture but nothing helped. Then I saw a different GP, who said there was a pattern between how I felt and the seasons, and told me about SADA – a charity dedicated to supporting people who suffer with SAD. I went to their AGM, and realised there were others like me. It was a huge relief to know my condition had a name, and I wasn’t going mad.”
Keen to become involved with SADA and support other sufferers, Helen began helping the organisation with administration and has gone on to become their chairperson. The role includes overseeing the work of the charity, and spreading the word about SAD, while managing her own ongoing battle.
“These days SAD and I get on reasonably well,” she says. “I use a light box and take antidepressants. I vary both according to the seasons. My worst time of year is November and December. I don’t mind January and February as I know the days are getting lighter and, once May arrives, I improve. However, I’m affected by light levels and dull weather at any time of year. I try to take a walk each morning, don’t skimp on light, and avoid getting up late so that my mind and body rhythms remain stable.
“My experience has taught me that we are all animals. Modern technology and a 24-hour world means we try to live our lives at the same pace all year round and this isn’t possible for some of us. SAD requires constant vigilance, and although there’s no cure, good treatment is extremely effective.
“I will keep raising awareness of SAD. For a long time I thought I was the only person in the world to feel the way I did. Now I know there are others just like me. I hope I encourage other sufferers to feel less isolated and know that help is available.”
Symptoms and getting help
- An estimated half a million people suffer from SAD in varying degrees every winter between September and April, in particular during November, December and January.
- Symptoms usually recur regularly each winter, but prolonged periods of low light at other times of the year may also trigger symptoms, including sleep problems, anxiety, lethargy, overeating and depression.
- The condition is caused by a biochemical imbalance in a section of the brain responsible for hormone production, due to the shortening of daylight hours and the lack of sunlight in winter.
- 20 per cent of the UK population have it in a mild form, more commonly known as the ‘winter blues’, but for one to two per cent symptoms can be far more severe, preventing them from functioning normally without continuous medical treatment.
- As lack of light causes the condition light therapy has been shown to be the most effective treatment in most cases, often combined with antidepressant medication. Meditation, psychotherapy, counselling, and complementary therapies may also help.
- SADA (The Seasonal Affective Disorder Association) is the UK’s only non-commercial support organisation for people with SAD. For help or more information visit: www.sada.org.uk or write to SADA, PO Box 332, Wallingford OX10 1EP.
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