Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression or “winter blues”, is a form of depression that occurs annually during the changing seasons, usually during the colder and shorter days of fall and winter. With less sunlight, warmth, and colourful foliage around, it’s not unusual to feel more melancholy and tired as winter approaches.
According to the Canadian Psychological Association, approximately 10% of all reported cases of depression are caused by SAD and around 15% of Canadians will experience a mild case of SAD at some point in their lives, with 2-3% of Canadians reporting serious cases.
What Are the Symptoms of SAD?
Many symptoms of SAD are synonymous with those of depression, with the main difference being that the warmer, longer days of spring and summer tend to ease its effects.
Typical signs and symptoms of SAD include:
- Low mood or self-esteem
- Daytime fatigue or feeling sluggish
- Feeling irritable, stressed, anxious, or hopeless
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too frequently
- Loss of interest in activities or avoiding people that you usually enjoy
- Difficulty concentrating or inability to carry out usual daily tasks
- Decreased sex drive
- Changes in appetite or weight
The number of symptoms experienced as well as their severity can vary from person to person. For some, symptoms will escalate as the season progresses into the darker, chillier days of winter. People affected by SAD may feel the need to isolate themselves for weeks, even months, until warmer weather returns. This past year during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have grown accustomed to self-isolation and managing ourselves during an extended period of lock-down (see our previous blog post How To Manage Your Mental Health During Lock-down). However, self-isolation as a coping mechanism for SAD is not a practical solution and risks intensifying symptoms. But there are steps you can take to stabilize your mood and motivation as we stride head-on into the colder months.
Tips on Dealing With SAD
Expose yourself to as much natural sunlight as possible. One of the main reasons SAD is more common in the winter is the shorter days. Natural sunlight can have mood-lifting benefits and may help boost serotonin levels. Take some time while the sun is still out to go for a short walk, or wrap yourself in a scarf and enjoy your favourite hot beverage outdoors. If you’re indoors, try increasing the amount of natural light in your home or workplace by opening the blinds. Many people have started working from home since the pandemic, and if this is the case for you, maybe reposition your desk or workspace to be closer to the window during the day.
Try light therapy. If daily exposure to direct sunlight isn’t an option or if your SAD tends to affect you more in the evening, light therapy is a common method for improving symptoms. You should consult with a doctor before beginning light therapy, as it is not suitable for everyone due to the possible negative side-effects, such as eye strain or nausea. You can try light therapy at a doctor’s office or at home using equipment like light boxes or specialized lamps designed to mimic natural sunlight. Here is a guide from The Good Choice on selecting the perfect light therapy solution for you.
Exercise regularly. Regular exercise can boost serotonin and endorphins, improving your overall mood, and can also help you sleep better. It can also take your mind off of anything that’s worrying you and distract you from that cycle of negative thoughts. Try taking a long walk to your favourite playlist or podcast, or jogging at a moderate pace. If you’re indoors, try some basic yoga exercises (see our Movement and Yoga Healing Room for instructional videos), or even just doing basic housework like vacuuming or sweeping to get your body moving.
Reach out to others. It’s easy to let the symptoms of SAD consume you and give into the temptation of total isolation, especially coming off of the past year we’ve all experienced. But remember that reconnecting with people who are important to you or even reaching out to new people will boost your mood and combat feelings of loneliness. It may feel awkward or difficult, but just know that you’re making an active effort to step outside of your comfort zone and improve your state of mind. You also might be surprised at how many people have lost touch with others throughout the pandemic and are experiencing similar feelings of social detachment.
Join a virtual or in-person support group. No matter where you are, know that you’re not alone. There are plenty of publicly funded or free services available to those seeking in-person support for a variety of issues surrounding mental health, stress, disabilities, assault and more. If you’re more interested in seeking virtual support, try checking out some of these online support groups available free of charge to anyone struggling for a variety of reasons.
Try to acknowledge and deal with stress on a daily basis. No matter how severe, it’s important to recognize those moments when you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress or anxiety. What are you feeling at this exact moment? Did something in particular trigger you? Is there something you can do right now to ease your nerves? If you’re on your phone or computer, take a moment to step away and tune in with your breath (see our blog 5 Exercises for Checking-in and Slowing Down). When dealing with an ongoing issue like SAD, it’s important to know when you’ve reached your limit and, over time, you may find it easier to recognize what has brought you to this point of stress and how to move past it.
Seasonal Affective Disorder impacts different people in many unique ways. What works for someone else might not be the right fit for you. It’s important to gauge your symptoms as best you can and seek professional help when it’s needed. Just know that you are not alone, and there’s a solution out there for everyone. Even with shorter days and colder weather, know that there’s still plenty to look forward to in the chillier season, from snowy winter sports to seasonal family gatherings. Before you know it, you’ll be watching the snow melt and the spring leaves sprouting, so try to enjoy the winter and combat the daily stresses in whatever way works best for you.
10 Online Support Groups for Anyone Struggling Right Now (Self)
79 Resources for Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder (Public Health Degrees)
Mental health support (Government of Canada)
Self-help, Mutual Aid and Support Groups (eMentalHealth)
The 2021 Ultimate Guide to Seasonal Affective Disorder (Carex)
The Best Light Therapy Lamp in Canada in 2021 – Reviews and Buying Guide (The Good Choice)