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Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder

With leaves falling and daylight hours shrinking, this time of year can feel dreary for anyone. For those with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), it can be even more difficult. These tips will offer insight on SAD, ideas for preparing for it, and coping strategies.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs within the same season each year (usually during fall and winter) and improves or stops altogether during the rest of the year. Learn more in Illness section - SAD.

An estimated 2-3% of Canadians suffer with SAD. If you have episodes of depression that reoccur during the same season each year, for 2 or more years, you might also have SAD (and not just the occasional winter blues).

In the clinical field, SAD has more recently been renamed "depressive disorder with seasonal patterns". If you want to know more about this type of depression, check out this video.

If SAD symptoms are new to you, schedule a check-in with your doctor! They can help you figure out if you have SAD, a different mood disorder, or something else that's causing your symptoms. Together, you can also come up with a treatment plan that feels right for you.

Try aromatherapy! Essential oils can influence the area of the brain (limbic system) that's responsible for controlling moods and the body's internal clock. Try bergamot and lavender oils to help with symptoms of depression!

If you're prone to SAD, make a plan before your symptoms worsen. Create a manageable routine, which includes time for connecting with loved ones, self-care, and activities like exercise and rest. Having a schedule can make you feel more in control as the season changes. 

If the sun is shining, take the opportunity to soak in the vitamin D! Natural light can be a good way to help combat SAD. And, if you feel like you're still lacking vitamin D, you can also talk to your doctor about taking vitamin D supplements in the wintertime.

Sticking to a routine and trying to maintain regular sleep patterns will help you get some light in! Keeping a schedule will expose you to natural light at consistent and predictable times, which your body will come to appreciate.

After talking to your doctor, you may come to the decision together that medication is needed to help stabilize your mental health throughout the winter. This is okay! It may be temporary and, even if it's not, you matter and always deserve relief from these feelings.

Have you tried several seasonal affective disorder therapies, but still feel that something seems to be missing? Explore light therapy! There are many devices available, such as special light bulbs and light boxes, that can help fight the symptoms of SAD.

Try combatting dreary days and dark nights by brightening up your space! Open your blinds to get natural light in when possible, and decorate your surroundings with bright-coloured and airy decor. You can also try adding some plants or greenery to your home.

If you do take medication or supplements, make sure to keep up with your doses. Even this may feel like a tough daily task in the wintertime, but staying consistent with your meds will help you to feel more regulated and equipped to cope when times are tough.

Keep a journal! Release those negative thoughts by writing them down and getting them out of your brain. Just put your pen to paper (or use an electronic device), and try to let out whatever comes to mind.

Eat the rainbow! Different colours of fruits and vegetables contain certain compounds, vitamins and minerals that each have their own health benefits. Getting a variety will ensure you're getting the most health benefits for your brain and overall wellness.

Want to explore some non-traditional treatments? How about Reiki! Reiki is a Japanese treatment that promotes energy healing through either a hands-on or hands-off approach. Find a practitioner in your area and speak with them to learn more.

While meditation is typically thought of as a calming tool, there are also energizing meditations to help you start your day with a positive boost! Try apps like Insight Timer for free guided meditations to stir up some positive energy when mornings are challenging.

Another way to try and give yourself a boost in the morning is to work in some movement. For some, that could be a walk, a home workout, or maybe yoga. For others, it could be doing some stretches or dancing it out to some music. Start small and notice what feels good!

Some days you may not be able to leave your bed and that's okay. Other days, try to do the opposite of what your illness wants. If it's telling you to stay inside and isolate, go out and visit a friend. This is known as opposite action and is a common skill taught in therapy.

As the winter months start rolling in, prepare for what's to come. Make a list of your coping strategies and supports, and try not to wait to access them only when you're severely struggling — practice makes progress, especially when it comes to coping skills.

Since we can't vacation somewhere warm and sunny, practice guided imagery. Close your eyes and imagine walking on a beach. What would it feel like to have the sun shining on your face and to feel the sand in your toes? Look up some guided imagery meditations and give it a try.

Go outside your comfort zone and try some different winter activities. There are many fun things to do that you might enjoy (e.g. renting skates at an ice rink, tobogganing, holiday crafts, making chili, and more). These small acts might be able to bring moments of joy.

Try out photography — it may help you to see things, especially the winter months, from a different point of view. If taking your own photos doesn't end up being your thing, you can take time to appreciate other people's winter photography instead.

Not one for the usual traditions leading up to the holidays? Who says you can't start your own! Creating traditions with family or friends may help you to make meaning during these difficult times.

Check out peer support resources like Togetherall, to chat with people who are also struggling. Connecting with others and sharing your story can be incredibly healing experiences — plus, you can learn what's helped people with similar experiences!

Educate yourself on the disorder. Read books, watch videos and research about SAD (as long as they are accurate sources of information)! By having a better understanding of something, it can make it easier to talk about what is going on and to make changes in your life.

Some people with SAD have found it helpful to use a dawn simulator. It's like an alarm clock, but without the obnoxious noise! It produces light that gradually increases in intensity, just like the sun, and makes for a more gentle experience of waking up for the day.

Talk it out, whether one-on-one with a counsellor, in other safe spaces like online communities, or with people you know in person! Having an outlet to share what you've been thinking and feeling can help you process things and can be a great relief.

Take some time to think about the winter activities that brought you joy as a kid. What if you scheduled some of them into your next few weeks? Partaking in things that brought us positivity as a kid can be great for our inner child and overall spirit!

SAD may bring about feelings of hopelessness. Make sure you develop a plan to help you through times when that feeling is overwhelming. Download the Be Safe app for help creating a safety plan and see if you can work on it with a supportive person. 

It's important to remind yourself that brighter days are to come. Before you know it, spring will be here. In the meantime, there will be opportunities for light and joy in these months ahead — hold on to those.