Many of us don't feel thrilled by the prospect of autumn looming round the corner. But for those with seasonal affective disorder, the change of seasons can have serious repercussions for their physical and mental wellbeing. Sally Churchward talks to one sufferer who has learnt to manage their symptoms and encourages others to get help if they are suffering.

GROWING up in South Africa, Jani Frank had never experienced the short, grey, overcast days which can be a persistent feature of British winters.

So when the then 17-year-old's family moved from Durban to the New Forest, Jani wasn't prepared for how tough winters might be.

"The days and nights don't really vary from summer to winter in South Africa," says the co-director of the Art House in Southampton.

"For the first couple of winters, I had lots of colds and felt really rough. It is something that just happens when you move to a new country – you catch lots of viruses.

"Also, I'd just moved to a new country away from all my friends and had to start over at a new college, so I put feeling bad down to that.

"But on the third winter I started to feel that there was something else wrong, so I went to my GP.

"It was the most severe winter I'd had and was particularly gloomy.

"I was going to bed at 7pm every night and felt awful and tired all the time.

"My doctor got me to journal my moods and was able to pinpoint that it was seasonal."

Jani's doctor diagnosed seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern.

The exact cause of SAD is not fully understood, but it is often linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter autumn and winter days.

The main theory is that a lack of sunlight might stop a part of the brain called the hypothalamus working properly, which may affect the production of melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy, the

production of serotonin, which is linked to feelings of depression, and the body's internal clock (circadian rhythm).

"I remember my doctor suggesting a sunny holiday in January or February but unfortunately he couldn't give me that on prescription!" says Jani.

"I was offered anti-depressants but although I know they can work really well for some people, I wasn't keen to take them, personally."

Jani's doctor offered holistic suggestions to combat the symptoms of SAD.

"He advised me to get outside as much as possible. When you feel awful you just want to sit indoors with the curtains drawn, but that's actually the worst thing you can do," says the 45-year-old from Southampton.

"He recommended daily walks and other things, like trying to live somewhere with south facing windows because basically the more sunlight you get, the better you feel.

"Later on, when I was at university, another doctor recommended using light therapy. I couldn't get that on the NHS so as a skint student I had to safe up for a special lamp, but it is quite effective.

"I now use a special bulb in my office and another where I have breakfast, which are really bright. You do have to be a bit careful because if you over use them you can get headaches."

Jani's SAD symptoms tend to peak in January, but vary from year to year, depending on how grey the winter is, and also personal circumstances.

"For a while, I had a south-facing office, so I didn't need light therapy," says Jani, adding that being self employed offers some control over such things.

"For any mental health issues it can be good to journal. I use this and creativity, and that helps me a lot.

"I try to be realistic and pace myself in winter. But sometimes life throws things at you, for instance my partner's father died in the middle of winter.

"I have to do extra self care in winter, things like journalling and art. It can be hard to motivate yourself if you're already feeling exhausted, but it does really help.

"I also try not to be too hard on myself.

"There is a real stigma around mental health issues," Jani adds.

"There is this idea that everyone has to be at maximum productivity all the time but I can't be a dynamo all year round. Our ancestors wouldn't have kept going at the same rate all the time. They would have chilled out a bit!"

Despite suffering as a result of seasonal changes, Jani enjoys the seasons and says that finding the beauty and joy in them helps combat the symptoms of SAD.

"I love things like sitting by a roaring fire in winter. I know all the pubs in the area where I can cosy up by a fire. It's good to do the nice things about winter. I also have lots of warm clothes to make sure that I can get out for walks when the weather isn't so good.

"It's weird, but I love autumn. It's so beautiful. One of the things that I love about this country is the different seasons," says Jani, who adds that having built a life in the UK, returning to South Africa wouldn't really be an option.

"I celebrate the seasons – I follow a natural spiritual path, which helps.

"Autumn is very pretty, and it's great to be able to go for walks, especially after the summer we've just had, when it was often just too hot to go out, and I loved the snow last winter, but January in Britain is pretty awful. I often wish I was somewhere where it would just snow.

"But then when spring comes that is an advantage. It can be so lovely to be able to see the daffodils."

Jani feels lucky to have had a doctor who diagnosed SAD so quickly and would encourage others who are suffering similar symptoms to see their GP, as help is available.

"It was really empowering knowing what it was," says Jani.

"I do worry that people don't have as much access to their GP now as they did when I was diagnosed.

"Some people don't see SAD as all that serious, but, especially if combined with other factors, it could become serious.

"I'd recommend that anyone who thinks they have it finds a sympathetic GP.

"You can get support and it can be helped. Don't pay attention to people who try to make you feel bad about it – this is brain chemistry!"