Do the short winter days and lack of sunlight make you feel unusually melancholy and sluggish? Do you find it harder to enjoy activities that you normally find exciting?
Don’t worry, there’s an explanation.
You might be experiencing classic symptoms of seasonal affective disorder—appropriately also known as SAD.
And you’re not alone.
According to Canadian Mental Health Association, about 2 - 3% of Canadians will experience various levels of SAD in their lifetime.
Another 15% will experience a milder form of SAD that leaves them only slightly depressed, but still able to live their life without major disruptions.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
More than just winter blues, seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression related to changes in the seasons, occurring primarily during winter.
People with seasonal affective disorder make up about 10% of all depression cases.
It’s more prevalent for northerners than for those who live closer to the equator. That’s because the farther north you go (away from the equator), the less daylight hours there are in a 24-hour period.
Causes of SAD
The specific causes of seasonal affective disorder remain unclear. Most theories attribute the disorder to the reduction of daylight hours and lack of sunlight.
Some factors that may come into play include:
Circadian rhythm disruptions
The circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock. The reduced level of sunlight during fall and winter can disrupt your body’s rhythm, leading to feelings of depression.
Drop in serotonin levels
Serotonin is your brain’s “feel-good” chemical that plays a major role in regulating mood. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin levels, which may trigger depression.
Drop in melatonin levels
The change in season can disrupt the balance of your body's melatonin levels, which play a role in sleep patterns and mood.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
In most cases, seasonal affective disorder symptoms appear during late fall and into winter, and usually go away during the brighter, warmer days of spring and summer.
Symptoms may start out mild and gradually become more severe as the season progresses.
Common symptoms may include:
- Fatigue and oversleeping
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Irritability and anxiety
- Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
- Social withdrawal and isolation
- Loss of interest in work and hobbies
- Low sex drive
- Physical discomfort, such as headaches and body aches
- Problems sleeping
- Overall feeling of hopelessness and guilt
- Low self esteem
Tips to Overcome SAD
Don’t brush off that yearly dip in energy as simply a case of the “winter blues” or as something you have to endure on your own.
Take proactive steps to care for your mental health throughout those winter months.
Here are 7 tips to help you combat SAD:
If the lack of sunlight is one of the contributing factors of SAD, then getting more light may reverse it.
A light therapy box that gives off a recommended 10K LUX, which mimics natural lighting, might just do the trick.It causes a chemical change in the brain that uplifts your mood and eases other symptoms of SAD.
It is recommended that you use the light box within the first hour of waking up in the morning, for about 20 - 30 minutes at a distance of 16 - 24” from the face.
You can keep your eyes open but do not look directly at the light.
If you don’t have the time to sit in front of a light box for 30 minutes every morning, the dawn simulator might be a better solution for you.
It gradually raises the intensity of its light over 30 - 60 minutes, simulating dawn.
The gradually increasing light reaches the retina through your eyelids. By the time you wake up, the treatment is complete and you can simply jump up and start your day.
Aromatherapy may also help with seasonal disorder. The smell of the essential oils can influence the area of the brain responsible for controlling moods and the body’s internal clock.
Oils such as lavender, sandalwood and juniper are just a few scents that can help you sleep and, in turn, elevate your mood.
As it does with other forms of depression, exercise and getting the body moving can help alleviate seasonal affective disorder, too.
It’s best to exercise outdoors if possible. But let’s face it, with the Canadian winter weather, that can be tricky.
Instead, sign up for indoor exercise classes such as yoga or zumba, or join a gym and workout close to a window.
Absorb the sunshine
Get outside as much as you can during the day and take advantage of what little sunlight there is. The sun is at its brightest around noon so if you work a 9-to-5, your lunch break is the perfect time to take a short stroll.
And when you’re trapped indoors, keep your blinds open to let in as much natural light as you can.
Stick to a schedule
Maintaining a regular schedule improves sleep, which can help regulate your circadian rhythm. It will also expose you to light at consistent and predictable times.
Get more vitamin D
It’s believed that vitamin D can help manage symptoms of mental health conditions, including a lack of motivation, sleep patterns and sadness.
A 2014 study published in the journal Medical Hypotheses suggested that low vitamin D could contribute to the development of SAD.
Talk to your doctor about testing your vitamin D levels and determine if supplements are right for you.
When to see a doctor
It's normal to have some days when you’re feeling blah.
But if you feel down for days on end and can’t get out of bed, please consult your doctor. This is especially important if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed drastically, you feel hopeless or think about suicide*.
*If you need help, please call or text Canadian Suicide Prevention and Support, available 24/7/365.
Seasonal affective disorder doesn’t have to disrupt your daily life if you take the appropriate steps to ensure your mental and physical health. Recognizing that you’re struggling is the first step to feeling better.
Extend kindness to yourself and try out some of the tips above to keep the SAD-ness at bay.
Remember, winter inevitably ends and warmer, brighter days of spring will always follow.