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Combating Winter Depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder

January 24, 2022
Winter scene of nature trail and pine trees

The cold temperatures and lack of sunlight during Canadian winters can affect mood and energy levels for many people. Although it’s common to feel a little down over the winter months, some people experience severe mood changes that can impact their ability to function. If you notice a shift in your mental health triggered by the change of seasons, you may have a type of clinical depression called seasonal affective disorder.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a form of recurrent depression that usually begins in the late fall or early winter and typically improves with the brighter days of spring. SAD can affect your mood, sleep, appetite, energy levels and many areas of life including your sense of self-worth. This year, as we push through another pandemic winter full of stress and anxiety, sufferers of SAD may feel the effects more than usual and some people may experience symptoms for the first time.

What Causes SAD?  

While the exact cause of SAD is unclear, a lack of sunlight is thought to disrupt the circadian rhythm that controls sleep/wake cycles. This is also believed to reduce levels of serotonin, the ‘feel-good’ chemical in our brain. SAD is more common in women and those with a family history of depression, and it tends to affect people who live farther away from the equator. Seniors are especially prone to seasonal depression as they are often less mobile, more isolated and more likely to not get enough sunlight. Busy caregivers are also at an increased risk of SAD for many of the same reasons.

What are the Signs and Symptoms?

Sometimes called winter or seasonal depression, the signs and symptoms of SAD are similar to clinical depression, but they appear and improve at around the same time each year. Warning signs are different for everyone and can vary in severity, but may include:

  • Low energy/fatigue
  • Feelings of anxiety, sadness, hopelessness and guilt
  • Change in appetite and weight
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Sleep problems
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Decreased motivation to engage in healthy habits
  • Suicidal thoughts (this should always be taken seriously)

The symptoms of SAD are consistent with other mental health conditions, so always see a healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis.

How is SAD Treated?

Although SAD symptoms often improve on their own with the change of season, there are many things you can do to better support your well-being throughout the winter. Talk to your health care provider to figure out which treatment, or combination of treatments, is best for you. Possible options include:

  • Light Therapy: Getting outside—even for a few minutes every day—as well as opening curtains, moving beds and desks near a window and adding plants to indoor spaces can improve SAD symptoms. If you have the means, a light box that mimics natural sunlight (without the dangerous UV rays found in tanning beds), is considered to be the best form of treatment at this time. Sitting in front of a light box device for 30 minutes first thing in the morning can reset your biological clock and encourage your brain to release mood-boosting chemicals. Always speak to your doctor before trying light therapy as certain eye diseases or medications can increase your sensitivity to light.
  • Psychotherapy: Many people with SAD can greatly benefit from cognitive-behavioural therapy. Talking to a mental health therapist can help you identify your negative thought patterns, find healthy coping strategies and improve self-care methods. Teletherapy may be a better option for immunocompromised or elderly individuals during this wave of the pandemic.
  • Medication: As with other types of depression, prescription medication can improve chemical imbalances in the brain that may lead to SAD—especially if your symptoms are severe. You may need to try several antidepressants to find the one that works best and has the fewest side effects. Your doctor may recommend starting medication before your symptoms start each year and continuing your medication even after the symptoms typically go away each spring.
  • Self-Care: Regular exercise, a healthy diet that includes vitamin D, good sleep habits, staying connected to others, positive thinking and stress management have all been shown to reduce mild symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. If you are experiencing more severe SAD, focusing on improving your self-care can be beneficial alongside other treatment options.

This year may be even more difficult for people with SAD as pandemic restrictions continue to limit interaction with friends and family, other activities and services. If you are experiencing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, make an appointment with your doctor as soon possible to find the best treatment plan for you.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call 911, go to your nearest emergency room or contact Talk Suicide Canada at 1-833-456-4566.

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