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Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder
One of the first steps in managing a disorder is having a good understanding of what it is. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also referred to as “recurring major depression with a seasonal pattern,” is a subtype of depression that affects an estimated 2-3% of Canadians. SAD occurs within the same season each year (usually fall and winter, however, some folks experience SAD in the spring and summer), and then either improves or remits entirely during the rest of the year.
Many people, especially in Canada, find their mental health may decline in the winter. This means it can be important for all of us to do what we can to show extra care towards ourselves during this time. However, unlike those experiencing the casual “winter blues”, individuals with SAD may need some medical intervention in order to manage their symptoms. These symptoms can include:
- Sadness or depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue
- Changes in sleep (usually oversleeping)
- Increased appetite (often craving carbohydrates)
- Weight gain
- Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
- Frequent thoughts about death or suicide
If you’re experiencing these symptoms in a way that they are interfering with your daily functioning, it is a good idea to see a family doctor or nurse practitioner to rule out any other possible causes and to potentially create a treatment plan to help you.
In addition to medical interventions and psychotherapy, there are some things you can do on your own to help manage SAD. We will explore them below.
Light therapy, also called phototherapy, entails sitting in front of a special lightbox (one that is at least 10,000 lux and filters out UV rays), also called a SAD lamp, for 20-60 minutes a day throughout the fall and winter months. It is a good idea to get your doctor’s approval before using a SAD lamp, as some medications can make you sensitive to the light. It is generally recommended that you sit within one to two feet of the lamp and that you use it first thing in the morning. It is thought that these SAD lamps simulate the sunlight that many people don’t get this time of year in Canada. Simulating sunlight like this can prompt the brain to release serotonin (known as a “feel-good” hormone) and it helps to regulate your sleep-wake cycle, which can also be helpful in reducing symptoms of depression.
Taking some time to sit down and create a daily routine can be a helpful tool for many who are struggling with depression. This includes trying to go to sleep around the same time each night and getting out of bed around the same time each morning. Next, it’s time to start filling in your daytime hours. It can be helpful to schedule some form of self-care or a feel-good activity at least once a day. You may also want to schedule in time for physical activity, rest, and socialization (even if it’s virtual). These components are all crucial for working towards a healthier life.
Sometimes movement can feel like the absolute last thing we want to do when we’re struggling with depression. However, more times than not, we’ll be glad we got some movement in once we do it. Between increasing your heart rate and thus your blood flow, as well as releasing some great endorphins, endless studies show how impactful physical activity can be for our mental and physical health. If this feels intimidating to you, try to start small. A walk around the block, or dancing along to a couple of songs can be a great place to start! Getting in some movement while outside is an added bonus; the sun may not seem as bright, but our bodies can really use that vitamin D!
As briefly mentioned in the symptoms, a common factor for those with fall/winter SAD is to have increased cravings for carbohydrates as well as sugary foods. It can be important to honour those cravings while also recognizing that our body very much appreciates nutrient-dense or “whole” foods too! Increasing our intake of fruits and vegetables helps to ensure we are getting a variety of nutrients and vitamins, which in turn can help with our mood and energy. Speaking of vitamins, it is worth asking your doctor if they would recommend that you take a vitamin D supplement during this time of the year.
Another important way to cope is by finding healthy ways to express yourself. Try not to keep things bottled up! It is human nature to be social creatures and to seek out support and connection from others, so there is no need to deny yourself of that - regardless of the lies that society has taught you about handling things on your own. In addition to reaching out to others, it can feel empowering to have other outlets of self-expression too. This can be through journaling, music, art, or a variety of other ways!
Whether you’re struggling with SAD, other mental illness(es), or maybe poor mental health without illness, your struggles are valid and you do not have to be alone in them.
To learn more about SAD and to find some other helpful tips, visit our Illnesses section.
Scarlett started as a volunteer with mindyourmind in 2012 and was a member of the staff team from 2016 to 2023. As a Psychology graduate from King's University College at Western, she is passionate about all things related to the subject and is a proud mental health advocate with lived experience.
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