As it gets darker, I feel depressed. Do you think I have SAD syndrome?

It has always been around the time when the clocks change that I’ve felt either suicidal or very ill

Dear Virginia,

Every year, around the beginning of October, I feel unaccountably sad and depressed. I’ve looked back in my diaries and it has always been around the time when the clocks change that I’ve felt either suicidal – I once had a breakdown at that time  – or have been very ill, physically. I’m starting to wonder if I suffer from SAD syndrome, which makes you feel unhappy as it get darker. But I feel it’s odd, if so, that it only lasts for three weeks or so. Do you think it’s worth buying one of those lamps, just to see if it is? They’re so expensive.

Yours sincerely,

Antonia

Virginia says...

My policy, when I’m depressed, is to try everything. Once you have got beyond being capable of going to the doctor, or swallowing some weird herbal medicine, or trying exercising daily, or taking any opportunity to make yourself feel better, you’re done for. And if you think that lack of light might be the answer to your gloomy moods at the start of autumn, then go ahead and buy a lamp.

You can always sell it again on eBay if it doesn’t work – though I’m sure there are quite a few companies that will send you lamps on a month’s approval before you have to commit to splashing out.

But my first instinct in your case – since it is odd that this depression doesn’t usually last more than three weeks and the SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) symptoms usually last for the whole dark, winter period – is to consider wheher the cause of your low patches might not be due to something called “anniversary illness”.

Every April for years I became ill. Once, I was even in the Priory for a month. Another time, I was forced to have a major operation. What was it about the sight of those yellow daffodils coming out that sent me plunging down? The arrival of spring  was an obvious thought – because rates of depression shoot up during the spring, oddly – but why was I getting physically ill as well? After years of counselling and asking around, I realised that April was the month when my mother died. Even though her death hadn’t meant a great deal to me at the time, my body clearly held some memory of the event, and pulled me into the depths whenever it was reminded, by the season, of my loss.

While the rational mind can forget events in the past, our being, our emotions, don’t forget them, and can repeat old responses for years to come.

Interestingly, once I made the discovery, I could predict when I would feel low – and the very act of being able to foresee my moods lessened the effects. There were no nasty surprises. I just thought: “Oh, I’m liable to feel depressed around now”, and when I did, I knew it was going to pass.

Before you go to your doctor – and I think you should if you’re suffering this badly – just ask yourself if there were any major distressing events in your past that took place at the beginning of October. If you can bring the reason for your sadness into your consciousness, it’s surprising how the power is taken away from the reaction.

And even if you can’t find a reason, just writing down in your diary each year that this is the time you’re liable to feel low will make the whole experience more manageable, in the same way as knowing you’re experiencing pre-menstrual tension – because you’ve noted it in your diary – makes the symptoms seem slightly more manageable.

Readers say...

Speak to your doctor first

Self-diagnosis is tricky. You don’t mention whether or not you have been to see any doctors or mental health professionals, but if not, this may be a good idea. My dad has had many episodes of mental ill health, including breakdowns and suicide attempts, and for the first few years of his illness, these incidents all cropped up in the winter months, so a connection with SAD seemed logical. He has since been diagnosed with clinical depression and it is thought that the time of year was coincidental. In your case, it could absolutely be related to the seasons, but speak to your doctor, who will undertake a thorough evaluation. If your symptoms are not SAD-related, then the sun lamp may not help.Better to be sure before spending your money.

Alex Morgan (by email)

Consider medication

As a fellow sufferer, I must tell you that your first step has to be a visit to your GP; you need a referral to a psychiatric unit for a proper diagnosis. Many such units will provide the light therapy you mention, and can offer it for free or at a reduced cost.

However, as October is already a mere few weeks away, I’d suggest that you also consider discussing with your doctor a course of medication (for example, SSRIs) to kick in before the approach of winter. SAD isn’t easy to distinguish from other forms of depression, so you would be giving yourself the advantage of extra time to explore why that particular time of year is distressing for you.

Ephie (by email)

It will be money well spent

I can vouch for the positive effects that these lamps can have. My younger brother has been affected by SAD for most of his life. We live in Scotland, so it’s dark most of the time, for most of the year. This led my brother to buy a SAD lamp to see if it made any difference to how he felt through the darkest months. I was very sceptical at first. He set it to turn on at around 7am, which meant he would be woken “naturally”, and also turned it on from 3:30pm onwards. It had amazing effects on his general wellbeing, and he now uses it regularly throughout the year to keep his spirits up. Although it cost around £50, I’d say it’s not so much of a heavy price to pay to potentially protect and enhance your wellbeing indefinitely. Go for it – you won’t regret it!

Aaron Imrie (by email)

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