My story: seasonal affective disorder
Jenny Scott-Thompson, 27, was diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder five years ago. She tells benenden health how she's learnt to manage her condition.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a condition that manifests itself during the winter months. The main symptoms are low mood, depression, fatigue and overeating.
“I'd have ten hours' sleep and wake up still tired, day in, day out,” explains Jenny, who now works full-time as an IT consultant. “I'd be eating all the time just to try and keep myself awake and give myself some energy. My concentration span was a lot shorter than normal and I couldn't think straight.”
While SAD manifests affects sufferers during the winter months, Jenny was – perhaps surprisingly – diagnosed in the summer. “It was quite interesting,” says Jenny, who now volunteers as media officer for the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association. “Basically it was in spring that I noticed my energy levels lifting. A lot of people notice the seasonal effects in the winter, when everything gets 'down', but quite often there's also external stuff going on in the winter that can be blamed for it. You've got a new school year starting, or new projects at work that seem to explain some of the symptoms. Whereas when my mood lifted in the spring there was nothing else to explain it, and that was the trigger for talking to my doctor.”
Once she'd taken that first step, getting a diagnosis of SAD was relatively straightforward. While some symptoms resemble those of depression, there are crucial differences. “Generally, in order for it to be classified as SAD, it has to be depression that's diagnosed with the winter symptoms of excessive sleep, rather than insomnia, and overeating, rather than under-eating,” she says. “In order to be diagnosed as SAD, the symptoms will tend to follow that pattern for three or four winters, easing in summer.”
The diagnosis made Jenny realise that she'd had the condition for some time. “I'd been suffering from it for about five or six years,” she recalls. “It's just that in all the previous years there was something else that looked like the cause.”
Over the intervening five years, Jenny has taken active steps to lessen the impact that SAD has on her work life, home life and emotional wellbeing. “First of all I was recommended to get a light box that I would start using in the autumn. My GP also recommended trying where possible to book sunny holidays in the winter – so getting some winter sun rather than taking all my holidays in the summer when it's nice weather anyway.”
This approach has had a positive effect, and Jenny continues to control her condition along with help from her GP, who has prescribed her anti-depressants during some winter spells. “The light box has made a huge difference,” says Jenny. “That first winter I used it was the first time I got all the way through from September to April without being suicidal at all. Every winter before then there'd been something going on that had me so depressed I was feeling suicidal – and I'd come to accept that as normal. It was such a revelation to realise that most people don't go through that every year.”
In addition to using the light box every day from mid-September and mid-April, to make up for the lack of sunlight during winter months, Jenny makes sure she looks after her health and exercises regularly. “Particularly in the winter, getting some exercise outdoors makes a big difference because you're getting a bit of light even if it's not that sunny - just being outside is brighter.”
Sensible eating helps too, she says. “The temptation is to go mad on carbs and fat and sugar, as you're craving carbs constantly. So counteracting that by getting plenty of fruit and veg, and planning meals to be as balanced and healthy as you can, does make a difference.”
Light therapy will also benefit people with milder symptoms, too, says Jenny, who explains that her mother now uses a dawn simulator, a type of alarm clock, to help her get up on winter mornings. “If you're feeling a bit blue in the winter and struggle to wake up in the mornings, then a light box or even a dawn simulator can make a difference,” she adds.
- Visit the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association to find out more about the condition, the symptoms and recommended treatments. The members' area has news about the latest medical research into SAD.
- There are many types of light boxes and dawn simulators available to buy. One well-known make is Lumie, whose light boxes are tested and approved for medical use in SAD and is a supplier to the NHS.
Don't forget that members of benenden health have access to a 24-hour GP advice line.