Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that arrives with the change in seasons, usually winter. It affects about 2%-6% of the population in Canada. The “winter blues” are much more common, affecting 15-20% of the Canadian population and is a milder form of SAD. I will admit that I tend to get the winter blues. Usually, as the days become shorter and shorter. Waking up well before the sun comes up, and going to bed long after it’s gone down, or worse going to work before it’s come up and coming home after it’s gone down has been an all too common experience for me. I’m sure many of you are nodding in agreement. Whether it’s SAD or the winter blues, women, being a younger adult, living far from the equator (so that’s all of us in Canada), and having a family history of either depression or bipolar disorder, puts us at greater risk.
How do I know if I have the winter blues or SAD? The symptoms of both include feelings of sadness and irritability, frequent crying, feeling tired, having less energy and sleeping longer, having difficulty concentrating, spending less time doing activities you enjoy, withdrawing from social activities, and weight gain. You may not have all the symptoms and still feel blue (or SAD). The biggest difference is that in SAD the symptoms are far more severe. The great thing is that in either case there are ways to improve our mental health and beat those blues – many of which I use myself!
- Bright Light Therapy is the number one recommended therapy for SAD. Not getting enough sunlight is a major factor in why we feel low in the winter. The research supports using a lightbox that uses lightbulbs far brighter than normal ones and that use different wavelengths than regular bulbs. It’s recommended to sit in front of the lamp for 20-30 minutes every day in the winter. These boxes are available for purchase at a variety of places, including Amazon, where prices range from $40-200, making it reasonably affordable as well. I personally haven’t tried a lightbox but I have friends who swear by it.
- Keeping Active can include a number of different things, but ideally, it is you doing something you enjoy! This can include physical activities such as walking or hiking, going to the gym (or working out at home if you’re not comfortable going back to the gym yet during Covid-19). It may also be engaging in a hobby or joining a club, or volunteering at a cause you support. It should also definitely include social activities like hanging out with friends (either in person or online). Even when I “don’t feel” like doing an activity, I know it helps me beat the blues, so I choose to do it anyway.
- Sleep hygiene involves many different aspects. For the winter blues and SAD specifically, going to bed at the same time every night, and then getting up at the same time every morning has shown to be helpful. I know this is hard! My sleep schedule got off track for a while and getting it back on track has not been easy. Once you do, you will likely reap the benefits for your physical and mental health. The average change takes about 10 weeks, so it’s best to start on this sooner than later.
- Getting enough Vitamin D is more difficult in our rainy winters, and Vitamin D deficiency is a contributing factor in SAD. So, how do we get enough Vitamin D then? I’ve taken supplements in the past, which is one of the recommended ways (and as recommended by my naturopath). If you’re not a supplement person, then eating foods rich in Vitamin D is another way to increase it. These include fish like salmon, herring and tuna, eggs, mushrooms, fortified milk and orange juice, yoghurt, fortified tofu, beef liver, fortified cereal, pork, and duck fat, among others. The great thing is that there are options for a variety of diets. I know I don’t eat everything on this list (at least when I’m trying to eat specific ways) but there are lots of things I do eat regularly. Making dietary changes is hard though, so connecting with supports to help you can be important!
- Clinical Counselling is helpful for anyone who is feeling sad or depressed. Even seasonally, counselling can provide you with the support you needs, while helping you gain some of the above skills (and others) to improve your overall wellness. I can also help you develop an action plan to make some of the changes, whether that’s engaging in more activity, changing your diet, or fixing your sleep schedule. I’m here to help!
Hopefully this gives you a few ideas on how you can beat the winter blues! Remember that prioritizing your mental health is an essential part of your overall well-being.