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What To Do About Seasonal Affective Disorder

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
  • Lethargy
  • Increased appetite
  • Social withdrawal
  • moodiness

COVID-10 and SAD

Seasonal Affective Disorder can cause 70% of individuals who already suffer from depression to feel worse. We should not underestimate the impact of what this means for pandemic times. COVID-19 has been tough on individuals and families across Canada for months.

You may have suddenly lost your job or presently be living with financial insecurity.  Parents now carry new burdens on how to keep children safe and properly socialized through school and play. Couples locked in close quarters for months could be at breaking point. And if the virus has impacted your health or that of a family member, your anxiety, stress or PTSD symptoms might be unbearable.

As industry professionals, we have been sounding the mental health alarm for months. With daylight savings time changing shortly, we will now experience shorter hours of daylight. It is more important than ever to check-in on your mental health. Reach out to a physician or a trained medical professional if you believe SAD will exacerbate existing stress or depression symptoms.

Getting Diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder

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 get worse 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 your 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:

Getting Outside

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.

Light Therapy

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

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. Regardless of the modality, a few sessions with one of our trained therapists will allow you to safely discuss feelings you have about yourself, your family, work and social supports. By doing this, we will help you identify past obstacles that cause unhealthy emotions and work on developing positive approaches to your life’s ups and downs. Talk therapy is one of the most effective treatments for depression, and we encourage you to reach out to us. 

Antidepressant Medication

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 many of us yearning for spring and summer. However, the season should not become an emotional trial that leaves you overwhelmed. You certainly do not need SAD to add to existing depressive symptoms caused by the pandemic. The treatments described above can make the next few months more pleasant and emotionally healthy.  Contact us for more information.


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