How I learned to cope with SAD...
Being prepared for the lethargy and insomnia of winter is half the battle, writes Carol Hunt
Even the best laid plans can fall asunder. Like many a person at risk of succumbing to the - now medically acknowledged - illness Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), I usually have a tried-and-trusted plan in place to get me through the dismal darkness of the winter months without falling victim to depression: exercise, good food and lots of sleep.
Of course, many of us experience what we call the "winter blues" during these months - we get a bit grouchy, have difficulties sleeping and generally feel fed up with the wet, cold, murkiness of the post-Christmas period. But SAD is an altogether other beast. It's a bit like the difference between feeling a bit "down" and being clinically depressed.
SAD, the mood disorder that recurs each winter, is much more severe and life changing than the common winter blues. For years I used to think that I was a lazy, good-for-nothing, useless individual every winter. I would drag myself out of bed, head fogged, limbs aching, and dread the thought of another day out in the dark world, doing "stuff" I had neither energy for nor interest in. I didn't have flu though, or even a bad winter cold. There was nothing wrong with me I believed that a dose of discipline couldn't fix (or a good kick up the arse). And the more indolent and exhausted I felt, the worse I would chastise myself about my pathetic weak will.
All I wanted to do was take to my bed and sleep until April (March is still too damp and dull for civilised outings). I couldn't conjure up interest in anything and eventually I would admit that I had succumbed to the depression I was prone to. It took quite a few years before I realised (or my GP did) that the lethargy and the disinterest always arrived during winter. And so I decided that I would go with the flow and do what my body was telling me. When I was tired, I rested. When I was hungry, I ate. I "wasted" a lot of time playing piano and read hundreds of books in front of the fire.
I didn't beat myself up about my lack of oomph - preferring instead to believe that I was obviously a child of nature who needed to hibernate (or as near to as possible) during the winter months. Paradoxically, acceptance of my limitations seemed to give me more energy and I managed to keep up a regular exercise regime during the winter months.
Exercise and sunlight are important if you can't afford a week in the sun. Dr Harry Barry of Aware advises that "one way of fooling" the brain in both depression and SAD is through "light therapy".
"Light boxes" he says, (used for between 20 and 120 minutes daily) "increase serotonin activity and are recommended for routine depression. Dawn-simulator lamps fool the brain into thinking it's summer, boosting serotonin and reducing melatonin activity."
Cognitive Behaviour Therapist Veronica Walsh agrees that SAD is a "very real type of depression".
"It's not just light boxes that are recommended to treat it. Trials for CBT treatment show that it is really effective in teaching sufferers how to understand and manage the condition," she says.
"CBT also helps us change how we behave, as well as how we think - tracking 'depression behaviour', and encouraging a practical diary of activities, whether we feel like it or not, that lift us up and get us back into normal life. It's a true science that exercise and social activities lift mood and give us more energy and make us happier, and faking it til we make it works."
Which brings me to this year and the comment I made at the top of this piece about "the best-laid plans" and all that. Having been hit with an illness recently that required a hospital stay and now a recuperation period, I find I'm unable to walk far in the daylight or take my usual exercise. I'm not mentally up for CBT, and can't afford a lamp or a sun holiday.
How, I thought, will I survive the winter in one piece? The answer is Frank: the gorgeous puppy we got before Christmas who has changed the dynamic of our home for the better. Research shows that a pet dog is a huge factor in alleviating depression, stress and loneliness. Petting a dog for a few mi nutes activates serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin (happy hormones) and at the same time decrease stress hormones.
I now spend half the day snuggling him and my mood has hugely improved. Who knew that a pet would prove to be such a great mood booster? Yes, dogs really are a (wo)man's best friend!
Free CBT self-help online site www.iVeronicaWalsh.wordpress.com. Aware: 1890303302
What the experts advise...
Maintain a healthy diet
Spend part of your day outside - get some natural light
Socialise, meet friends - get out of the house
Sign up for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Invest in light therapy or a dawn simulator
Book a sun holiday
Check with your GP to see if you need serotonin drug-boosting therapy
Get a dog
Experts: Dr Harry Barry, director of Aware,  Veronica Walsh, cognitive behavioural therapist, [www.iVeronicaWalsh.wordpress.com] Shane Kelly, Irish Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapy (IACP)