A feature on seasonal affective disorder written in the style of a magazine for women.
As the winter nights start to draw in, the mood of the great British public becomes all the more miserable and you’d be forgiven for thinking your local shopkeeper’s face would crack if she attempted a smile.
But for some, the ‘winter blues’ goes further than simply feeling a bit down. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of winter depression that affects an estimated half a million people in Britain. It’s caused by the lack of bright light in the winter and is particularly common in women.
Doctor, Lisa Matthewman, says: “Many people find that they feel lethargic and low in the winter, but for some the symptoms are more severe and are enough to disrupt their lives. Like animals, most people find they eat and sleep more in winter and dislike the dark mornings and short days.”
Catherine Webb, 28, first realised she suffered from SAD when she went on a winter holiday to Spain.
“I find myself trying to hibernate in the winter, so last year I went on holiday to escape the depressing grey skies. After a few days of sunlight I felt more energetic and much happier within myself. But when I got back to England the ‘Sunday night feeling’ returned and, even though I’ve never been a morning person, I was finding it difficult to get out of bed.
“When it starts getting dark at 4pm I get a panicky feeling inside. I do enjoy the build up to Christmas, but it’s so damp and cold in January and February that I’m moving to Australia next year.”
A daily routine of awaking in the darkness, sitting in an office all day and going home to a houseful of stroppy teenagers is enough to drive anyone to a nervous breakdown. But add to that short days (so the prospect of repeating that dreary day all over again is even closer) and wet weather and you have the perfect recipe for SAD.
“With the days beginning and ending in darkness, lots of people suffer from SAD in a mild way. I would advise people to get some daylight by going out of the office for lunch, rather than eating at your desk,” says Professor Cary Cooper.
Until about 150 years ago most people worked outdoors, meaning they saw natural sunlight every day of the year, but because we now work indoors, windows filter out many parts of the light spectrum so we’re becoming depressed, tired and more prone to catching colds. SAD can also be blamed for loss of libido and weight gain.
But before you start reaching for that comforting bag of crisps, read on because help is at hand.
“I would advise sufferers to go for long walks, exercise and eat healthily. Natural remedies and anti-depressants are effective cures; however I would recommend light therapy. Patients suffering from a seasonal illness like SAD can be put on anti-depressants in the winter period and are never taken off them. It happens a lot; I’ve seen it in my own studies,” says light therapist, Philip Bunting.
The NHS recommends light therapy, which is successful in 90 per cent of cases. Outside In (www.outsidein.co.uk) provides a range of lights, lamps and gadgets, which are five times brighter than your typical office. But if you think you can use light therapy as an excuse to sit down in front of a lamp and give yourself a break from juggling your usual daily routine, you are sorely mistaken. As long as you are near the light for 15 to 45 minutes a day, you can continue as normal. So much for putting your feet up.
Probably the most appealing cure for SAD would be to take a skiing holiday in The Alps, but as this is practical for only the more privileged among us, Dr Matthewman encourages sufferers to seek the support of their GP. “In more extreme cases, a series of psychological one-to-one sessions can be beneficial,” she says.
For most people SAD is a mildly discomforting disorder, but some are unable to function normally without continuous medical treatment.
“I’ve known people who have lost their jobs. I have one customer who is a virtual recluse in the winter because he sleeps all day. I also have clients whose marriages have broken down due to the illness and in Scandinavia there’s a high incidence of alcoholism,” says Philip Bunting.
So even though the infamous British climate has a lot to answer for, look on the bright side; at least you don’t live any more North of the equator.