Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of depression that affects people in the fall and winter months. Also known simply as SAD, it affects approximately 3% of Canadians and makes up almost 10% of all depression cases. While the exact science behind the disorder is unclear, shorter daylight hours and cooler temperatures trigger symptoms in some individuals. The climate, typical in the northern hemisphere, leaves Canadians susceptible to SAD, women more so than men. The symptoms include:
- Inability to focus or concentrate
- Increased weight gain
- Increased appetite
- Social withdrawal
Getting Diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of depression that can cause 70% of individuals who already suffer from depression to feel worse during the winter months. Receiving a diagnosis from your physician or a trained medical professional is the first step to get these symptoms under control.
Discounting the impact of obvious psychosocial stressors, like regular winter unemployment, your physician will examine the timing of past depressive episodes. He or she will also determine whether your symptoms become worse during certain times of the year. For example, does your depression progress to mania or hypomania in the winter and subside during the spring? You are more likely to receive a diagnosis for Seasonally Affective Disorder if this pattern has recurred for two years in a row and also if the seasonal onset of depression outnumbers other depressive episodes in your lifetime.
You should speak to your physician even if you do not meet the clinical diagnostic criteria described above; indeed, many individuals report subsyndromal depression symptoms in the winter months. You might label them as general moodiness or the “winter blues.” Treatment for low mood in the winter can include a combination of biological as well as psychological approaches.
Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Often, simple behavioural changes work well to alleviate symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. They include:
Among other things, research has linked a Vitamin D deficiency to mood swings, headaches and fatigue. The simplest way to boost Vitamin D levels in the body is sunlight exposure. Walking outdoors, even in the winter, reaps more benefits than walking indoors on a treadmill. While the cold winter months may not make this pleasant, a half-hour walk in the outdoors at high noon may do the trick. You can bundle up as needed because you only need to expose your face or hands to sunlight. As an added benefit, exercise is the best way to release the feel-good hormone, serotonin. It is known to support elevated moods, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, as well as sexual desire and function.
SAD lamps, also known as light therapy boxes, contain bulbs that mimic natural outdoor light without harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Daylight reduces the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin, in your brain while increasing the secretion of serotonin. However, this dynamic can become sluggish with shorter daylight hours. SAD lights regulate the process in your brain. Reading in front of a SAD light for half an hour in the mornings offers sufficient exposure for most people. You do not need to look directly at the lamp, but require light to penetrate through your eyes. In Canada, professionals will recommend you start your SAD light therapy on Labour Day, even if you are not symptomatic, and continue it through Easter weekend.
Most people can safely use light therapy, and 60-80% of people report substantial relief from its use. However, you should not begin this treatment without first consulting your physician because of the side-effects and interactions with some medications.
Watching Your Diet
Anxiety is a common symptom that accompanies Seasonal Affective Disorder. According to Dr. Uma Naidoo of Harvard Medical School, good nutrition can improve symptoms. The rules are straightforward. Pay attention to what you eat, reduce consumption of sugar, caffeine and alcohol, and include fruits, vegetables and whole grains in your diet. This is good advice to follow any time of year, however, anyone suffering from seasonal disorders should increase the intake of fresh fruits and vegetables during the winter months. They are rich sources of essential nutrients like magnesium and zinc that ease anxiety and make people feel calmer. You can also speak to your physician about taking turmeric supplements that have proven successful in clinical trials to influence neurotransmitter balance in the brain.
Psychotherapy treatments have proved incredibly helpful for individuals experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder. In particular, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy emphasizes the link between our thoughts, feelings and actions. Changing this dynamic by replacing unhelpful thoughts with positive messages assists in improving your feelings and views of your day-to-day life. CBT treatment is designed as a short-term and focused therapy that lasts approximately 2 months.
Regardless of the modality, effective talk therapy encourages individuals to discuss feelings about themselves, their family, work and social supports. By doing this, you can identify past obstacles that cause unhealthy emotions and work on developing positive approaches to life’s ups and downs.
When treatments described above fail to move the needle in severe cases of Seasonal Affective Disorders, your physicians may recommend medical intervention. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are a class of medications that regulate serotonin hormone levels in the brain. They work by blocking its reabsorption into neurons, keeping the brain flooded with this “happiness” hormone. These medications have proven to be effective for depression although their impact, specifically for SAD has not been researched.
Winter months leave most of us dreaming about spring, for sure. However, the season does not need to become an emotional trial that leaves you overwhelmed. You can easily implement the treatments described above to make winter a pleasant and emotionally healthy time.
About The Authors
Laura Devlin is a Registered Psychological Associate with over 10 years of experience, and a managing director at Beaches Therapy Group. We have helped numerous clients successfully manage their SAD symptoms. Contact us to discover how our therapy sessions are a worthwhile investment towards happy and healthy relationships.
Isabella Bergagnini is an intern at Beaches Therapy Group with a B.A. in Psychology. She is looking forward to graduating in August 2020 from the Master’s Level of Psychology Program at Adler Graduate School (M.Psy Candidate). Her internship hours contribute towards her goal to register with the College of Psychologists.