Seasonal Blues (SAD)
It’s that time of year again – the days are getting shorter and I am losing my motivation. I get tired faster; I have less drive; and I am starting to feel a bit depressed. I think I might have SAD. What can I do?
Signed: Seasonal Blues
Dear Seasonal Blues,
Many people notice a drop in their energy levels and a shift in their positive mood as the days get shorter and the natural light wanes. We all know what’s coming – many long months of snow and cold weather. Our brains automatically start to prepare for and respond to this change like clock-work, right around this time of the year. It’s time to change out the summer clothing for the winter gear. And it’s time to change our daily routines, to accommodate different forms of energy and activity, so we can remain healthy and in-balance (emotionally, mentally and physically).
In some cases, though, this seasonal shift might be more than just a transitional sad send-off to the glorious summer months we have been enjoying. If a person cannot seem to shake the low energy and glum feelings that develop, even with healthy living strategies, they might be dealing with a common phenomenon known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD). SAD is a form of depression that impacts about 5-20% of our Canadian population (another 15% will experience a lesser version of the Disorder, each year). SAD tends to impact women more than men and it tends to affect people between the ages of 18 and 35 more than it does older individuals (the risk of developing SAD decreases with age – but it does still happen).
Seasonal Affective Disorder is caused, in part, by a decrease in the production of one of our natural happy hormones called serotonin (which is influenced by a decrease in the productivity of vitamin D); and by an increase in one of our natural relaxation hormones called melatonin (which can be influenced by the increase in darkness). SAD affects most people during the winter months but it can actually also strike during spring/summer, as the longer nights are not the sole cause of a serotonin/melatonin imbalance.
SAD looks a lot like depression, but the symptoms tend to disappear when the season passes. SAD will often have an adverse effect on memory and one’s ability to concentrate/focus; it decreases energy levels and causes sleeping problems; and it impacts appetite and weight loss patterns. SAD influences our mood and our ability to emotionally regulate (which can increase feelings of irritability, sadness and apathy) and it lessens the accuracy of our process of self reflection (which can increase a sense of hopelessness, powerlessness and worthlessness).
The symptoms of this very real mental health disorder often lead to increased addiction issues, abuse/violence and suicidal thoughts and behaviours, as people struggle to find more healthy coping strategies. In order to be diagnosed with SAD, a person typically needs to experience the signs/symptoms for at least two consecutive years (which is why it is critical to speak to your doctor about how you are feeling on an ongoing basis).
Research shows us that the most useful tool for treating SAD is light therapy (on a daily basis – the more consistent this can happen, the better the results). Exposure to bright light therapy within the first hour of waking is ideal for stopping the overproduction of the body’s natural melatonin. It also boosts vitamin D production and typically increases levels of serotonin, as a person is often sitting and relaxing while they are under the light. Taking a daily vitamin D supplement (drops or pills are available) is another great technique for fighting back against SAD or the winter blues in general. As is increasing your vitamin B intake, especially in the mornings. Eating well helps a great deal, too – avoid excess carbs and ensure your diet is rich in protein and Omega-3 fatty acids as an ideal way to build a nutritional foundation that helps internally regulate SAD/fight the winter blues.
Many people also find counselling a useful tool – a therapist can help teach many techniques that increase a person’s serotonin naturally. Sometimes, antidepressant medications might also be beneficial – as are relaxation techniques like massage, yoga, meditation, guided imagery, and art/creative therapy activities. Keeping the indoor environment bright and staying warm lessens the fatigue and lethargy that so often accompanies SAD/the winter funk. And regular social connection is essential to help alleviate the emotional funk and withdrawal that exasperates the depression that SAD/the winter blues creates.
We don’t yet fully understand everything there is to know about Seasonal Affective Disorder. But what we do know works well. Many people try to ignore their symptoms and push through SAD, which often only makes things worse. The best thing you can do if you think you might have Seasonal Affective Disorder is to reach out to a doctor or find a therapist right away, to start addressing your needs.
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