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Why winter’s darker days leave us feeling so SAD

 

Seasonal Affective Disorder leads to depression-like symptoms in months of shortened daylight. With clocks due to go back an hour at the weekend, Lee Henry talks to two NI women who suffer from it.

‘I can feel the anxiety set in at 5pm when it begins to get dark’

Caroline McMenamin, a former model turned mental health counsellor (27), is from Londonderry. She says:

I learned that I had seasonal affective disorder when I was around 18, after reading about it in a local newspaper. I remember having the symptoms ever since I was a very young child but, at that time, mental health was a foreign concept. No one even talked about it. It's only in recent years that people have begun communicating about mental health to their children.

The general symptoms of SAD are similar to depression and can range from mild to severe. SAD can affect my appetite, my sleep patterns, mood, motivation, sex drive and general outlook on life. Often, sufferers can lack energy and become irritable and even suicidal. Anxiety is also very common in experiencing seasonal affective disorder, and with anxiety can come panic attacks, heart palpitations, irrational thinking and nausea.

I distinctly feel the symptoms take hold when it comes around to September. There is a palpable energy and environmental change, and, of course, September is associated with the beginning of the school term. For me, there is a stress involved in that.

My SAD then fades at the onset of spring. Until then, I have to be vigilant about my mental health. As I've gotten older, however, I've come to manage my SAD better mainly because I understand it more.

I'm very receptive to sound, light, ambience and even the slightest change in atmosphere and people like me are more predisposed toward SAD. In the autumn and winter months, I can almost tell what time it is by how I sense the atmosphere and ambience. It may sound kooky, but I particularly feel anxiety set in at around 5pm, primarily because it begins to get dark around that time.

Medication is an option for individuals experiencing SAD, yet there are other options to consider. Light-therapy is one way to treat SAD, the use of artificial light to improve mood. A greater intake of vitamin D can help, as can an increased exercise regime. Natural remedies like 5-htp or CBD oil are popular herbal alternatives to anti-depressants.

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Speaking candidly: Caroline McMenamin

It's important that exercise is done in the natural daylight hours as much as possible. It's about maintaining healthy levels of vitamin D. It's also important to get the correct nutrition as our diet has a lot to answer for in relation to our mental health.

I also keep busy, through catching up with friends or joining classes. I find that yoga is also a very effective, holistic way to combat stress. Talking is important too. Having a confidant in whom we can speak openly and honestly about problems can really help. Some people aren't aware that seasonal depression is an actual condition. That is why having a growing conversation about SAD and other mental health issues is necessary. People need to realise it's not just them and that they're actually dealing with a very common condition.

My family and friends are always surprised to hear the information I give them about SAD. Often they are shocked because they share the symptoms. It's a reaction that brings people together. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, I hear other people say, 'Me too'. The relationships with people in your life can become so much stronger at that point.

To be honest, I haven't experienced any negative reactions from people when they learn that I have SAD. Mental health is as real and important as our physical health, and you can't have one without the other. A negative response from talking about mental health is just as absurd as getting a negative response from talking about physical health.

Admitting and committing to managing your mental health for overall wellbeing is actually one of the most liberating things an individual can do . I use my blogging and social media platforms to speak openly and honestly about my mental health in real time and that definitely helps in dealing with my SAD.

I will have days where I'm fine and doing well, but I also don't hide it when my anxiety has spiked or my mood is low. On my Facebook Live videos, I speak candidly about what it's like to live with SAD and other mental health disorders. It's about normalising mental health issues, providing comfort and empowering people. SAD doesn't have to ruin your life."

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Caroline with boyfriend Stephen Cleary

‘The idea of going out to socialise fills me with dread’

Performing arts lecturer Pauline McCann (55), lives in Londonderry with her daughter Jodie (12).

She says:

I was in my mid-20s when I started to develop seasonal affective disorder. At that time of year when the nights started to draw in, I changed completely. My whole family noticed the change. I wasn't my usual bubbly self. I didn't want to go out anywhere and always stayed in the house. Everything that interested me previously suddenly didn't interest me anymore.

Even the smallest things were hard to do, but at that stage, I wasn't really sure what was wrong. I thought it was just me. It was the way I was. Back then, nobody knew about SAD, they just thought it was depression. But I kept thinking to myself, I have nothing to be depressed about.

I absolutely hated the dark nights coming in. I felt my energy levels just dropping right down. I would still cope. I would still go to work and do what I had to do, but I derived no enjoyment from anything. Once I got past Christmas and into January, though, I started picking up again. I knew that the winter was passing and I would come back into myself again.

I've always lived with SAD, so I've never known it any other way. Every winter, people would say, 'Pauline, there's no craic out of you today. What's wrong with you?' I just felt so exhausted. I've been a lecturer in performing arts in the North West Regional College for over 20 years and a lot of young people live with SAD too. I can see it in them.

Because we work in dark theatre spaces, with no natural light, rehearsing and acting for hours at a time, when the winter comes around, I make a point of taking my students outside, into the light. I'm not a trained counsellor but I do talk with them about it.

They come to me because they don't want to go to a counsellor or they don't want to tell their parents, whereas I'm quite open about my SAD. I have tutorial sessions with them and if and when they open up about their mental health, I will tell them about SAD. Often they go and look up the symptoms, and they realise that SAD is a possibility for them.

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Battling on: Pauline McCann had the first symptoms of SAD in her mid-20s

Working in the arts, people always said, 'Oh, she's a typical artist, her moods are all over the place'. I always knew, though, that it wasn't that, because for the rest of the year, I would be fine. Whenever it's bright outside, it just doesn't bother me.

I have friends who have SAD too. Whereas I can push through the winter months until I'm out the other side, I've seen people totally floored by it. One friend in particular struggles with it more than I do. For her, it comes on much earlier in the year. Even her husband tells me, 'She doesn't want to do anything. It's tough'.

I guess it doesn't affect me as bad as it can other people.

When my daughter came along, though, I did go through a really bad time. I had to push through to get things done.

I have an underactive thyroid, which brings about tiredness. I have low iron and B12 deficiency, so I get injections every three months. I was with the doctor once getting tested and I mentioned that during the winter I get more tired than usual. I wondered if I did have SAD and she agreed that I probably had.

When my friends heard, they didn't know how to take it. 'SAD', they said, 'How can you be sad? You're the life and soul of the party'. But it was just because they didn't know about it. It wasn't common knowledge and it took me to explain it to them, although at the time I didn't know much about it myself.

The light box didn't work for me. I didn't feel any different after sitting with a light, although it does work for other people. At the start, my older doctor gave me a low dose antidepressant. That always seemed to get me through the winter and then I would come off it again because I didn't need it. The antidepressants made me that little bit more functional.

With SAD, you feel that you can't be bothered to get dressed in the morning. You pull your hair back instead of doing anything with it. You get to work, you do your work, you come home and that's it. You go into your own world. The thought of going out to socialise in the dark evenings fills you with dread. But I'm glad that people are starting to talk about SAD and mental health in general. It can only be a good thing."

Debilitating condition affects up to 8% of people in the UK

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) are similar to those of normal depression, but they occur repetitively at a particular time of year.

They usually start in the autumn or winter and improve in the spring with up to 8% of people in the UK suffering.

The nature and severity of SAD varies from person to person. Some people just find the condition a bit irritating, while for others it can be severe and have a significant impact on their day-to-day life.

Depression

Most people with SAD will feel depressed during the autumn and winter.

Signs that you may be depressed include:

  • a persistent low mood
  • a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
  • feeling irritable
  • feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
  • low self-esteem
  • tearfulness
  • feeling stressed or anxious
  • a reduced sex drive
  • becoming less sociable

A small number of people will experience these symptoms in phases that are separated by "manic" periods where they feel happy, energetic and much more sociable.

Treatments

Consult with your GP for treatment options; such as antideprssants or CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy)

  • Drug-free treatments for depression include rTMS (Repetitive Tanscranial Magnetic Stimulation) or Light Therapy via a Light Box
  • Maintain social contacts with friends and family. Arrange regular catch-ups with friends in advance
  • Eat food rich in tryptophan, an amino acide associated with serotonin production. Found in fish, bananas, nuts, avocados
  • Take vitamin D - the sunshine vitamin - found in oily fish, fortified margaraine, eggs and butter
  • Exercise/walk in daylight

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