When grey skies take their toll 2018

Not many of us will be looking forward to the clocks going back this weekend, but for some it can mean the start of a winter-long battle just to get out of bed. Sarah Dunn met a woman clawing back control from seasonal affective disorder.

Sandra Wood wants to hibernate.

Winter is very nearly upon us and the grey skies are already taking their toll on her mood.

The 68-year-old has lived with seasonal affective disorder or SAD for as long as she can remember.

In the summer months, with long days filled with light – if not always sunshine – she is happy and well.

But when the nights begin to draw in and the daylight hours start to slip far too quickly through her fingers, Sandra feels herself being sucked into the grips of depression.

“I’m always a happy bunny in the summer, but in the winter I just want to hibernate,” she says.

“I start getting agoraphobic – I don’t want to go outside – I start eating more carbohydrates, and in the morning I don’t want to get out of bed, I want to stay there, curled up in the womb.”

SAD is a condition which has only come to the public’s consciousness in the past 15 to 20 years, although today it is estimated that seven per cent of people in Britain live with it and 17 per cent with a milder ‘winter blues’ form.

Back in 1972 – when Sandra’s third daughter was born and the year she first sought treatment for her low mood – she was told it was post-natal depression and prescribed Valium.

Never mind that the baby was born in April, and her symptoms didn’t start until September.

It wasn’t until a few years later, when she read an article in a magazine about the significance of daylight on people’s mental health, that Sandra realised she could be suffering from SAD.

“It all just clicked into place,” she says.

The severity of her symptoms have varied over the years.

As a young mum living in Kent she often worked outside in apple orchards and later ran a sheep farm in Devon.

Both jobs allowed her to be outdoors for long periods, with the regular exposure to daylight key to managing the condition.

But nine years ago she moved up north in retirement – first near to Glossop and more recently, after meeting her husband Roger, to Hazel Grove.

Now as the colder weather and dark nights draw in, she relies on a daily session in front of a light box to help her deal with the disorder.

“I use it every morning for about half an hour – I normally just sit and read, letting it shine on me.”

The treatment is aiming to correct a a biochemical imbalance in the hypothalamus portion of the brain, caused by the shortening of daylight hours and the lack of sunlight.

Although it helps, Sandra says she still despises winter mornings – and hates the day the clocks are turned back.

“I’ve suffered every winter, without fail, for as long as I can remember,” she says.

“I dread the day the clocks go back – there’s just not enough hours in the day to get enough light. When I wake up I feel so miserable, and although I force myself to get up, every day is a struggle.”

Sandra feels lucky to have read that article years ago and to at least have an understanding of the condition which blights her – and is keen to raise awareness so other sufferers can too.

She and Jane Harris, associate director of communications and campaigns for the Rethink Mental Illness charity, urge people to seek help as soon as they notice a change in their mood.

Jane says: “As the night start to draw in and the days become greyer, it’s important to take the initiative straight away if you start feeling differently.

“People feel so worried about the stigma surrounding any type of mental illness, but as with anything, the earlier you get help, the quicker you are going to feel better.

“A lot of people think they will just forget about it and it will go away by itself but that is not very often the case. and when you do go to your doctor with any kind of depression, don’t just be fobbed off with a bag of medication. It’s so personal, it’s about your sense of self and your identity, people have to find the thing that works for them.”

For Sandra this means using her light box and getting outdoors as often as possible. for others it could be talking or complimentary therapies, or, in the more extreme cases, medication.

Sandra says: “There’s no getting away from it.

“It’s about managing and controlling it with the right support.”

SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER

The symptoms of SAD usually recur regularly each winter – starting between September and November, and continuing until March or April.

A diagnosis can be made after three or more consecutive winters of symptoms which may include: depression; sleep problems; lethargy; over eating; difficulties with cognitive function; social problems; anxiety; loss of libido; sudden mood changes in spring.

Treatments can include: light therapy; cognitive behavioural therapy; counselling; healthy diet and lifestyle; non-sedative anti-depressant medication.

Visit rethink.org/ for more information about the charity’s work across a host of mental health conditions. call 0300 5000 927 to access their help and advice line.

Visit sada.org.uk/ for more information about the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association.

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