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Health & Wellness: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Written by Kerry-Anne Holloway in Health and Wellness on February 8, 2021

If you have the winter blues, you’re not alone. Darker days combined with the effects of the pandemic can make any of us more vulnerable to changes in our mood.

While everyone’s mood can be affected by the weather, an estimated 2%-6% of Canadians experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as Seasonal Depression or Winter Depression.

A milder form of SAD may be experienced by another 15% of Canadians in their lifetime (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2020). SAD is typically seen in Fall and Winter and can last four to five months.

Woman with a red umbrella walking in snow in the city next to a street
single tree in the distance

Seasonal Affective Disorder is believed to be brought on by less exposure to sunlight, and a change in our circadian rhythm, which may cause a biochemical imbalance in the brain (American Psychiatric Association, 2020).

It is more prevalent in countries that are located further from the equator, and therefore, have less sunlight. Research has shown that there also may be a genetic component to SAD, and that it’s typically seen more in adults than children, and in more women than men.

Symptoms of SAD range from mild to severe and are similar to those of depression.

The primary symptom is a persistent sadness which also may include changes in appetite and weight, cravings for carbohydrates, sleep problems, feeling fatigued even if you are oversleeping, social withdrawal, loss of interest in work or hobbies, feeling useless, guilty or hopeless, irritability and trouble with concentration or decision making.

young man on morning run
bowl of fresh fruits

If you struggle with your mood during the dark winter months, there are treatments available. One of the most common and effective therapies is light therapy, also known as phototherapy (UBC, 2020).

Light boxes with a strength of at least 10,000 lux are recommended to help get that daily dose of UV. The UBC Mood Disorders Centre has compiled some good information on light therapy, and there are many affordable lights available online.

Other lifestyle habits that can help ease SAD include eating a well-balanced diet, and exercising for 30 minutes a day, five times a week which has been shown to have an antidepressant effect.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in which clients learn how to identify and challenge negative thought patterns and behaviours and replace them with healthier ones can also be effective for treating depression and SAD.

man running across the bridge
Student posing outside Alexander College

The Canadian Mental Health Association (2020) recommends the following to ease SAD:

  • Spend more time outdoors during the day
  • Try to arrange the spaces you spend time in to maximize sunlight exposure
  • Keep curtains open during the day
  • Trim tree branches or hedges that may be blocking some of the light from getting into your home
  • Move furniture so that you sit near a window or, if you exercise indoors, set up your exercise equipment by a window
  • Install skylights and add lamps
  • Build physical activity into your lifestyle preferably before SAD symptoms take hold. Physical activity relieves stress, builds energy and increases both your physical and mental well-being and resilience
  • Make a habit of taking a daily noon-hour walk, particularly if you commute to school or work in the dark hours of the day
  • Try to resist the carbohydrate and sleep cravings that come with SAD
New International Student at Alexander College
Student posing outside Alexander College

Incorporating other practices into your routine, such as mindfulness meditation, massage, aromatherapy, and yoga can also complement your Winter wellness plan.

Weather related mood issues often peak in January and February, so pay attention to your warning signs and stressors and make a plan to be proactive, or to make changes if they worsen.


Are you looking for someone to speak to?

Contact Kerry-Anne Holloway, our Health and Wellness Counsellor for confidential appointments with students at 604-780-1799 or hollowaycounselling@gmail.com

Registered Clinical Counsellor and Canadian Certified Counsellor at Alexander CollegeAuthor: 

Kerry Anne is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and Canadian Certified Counsellor and loves to work with students at Alexander College in her role as the Health and Wellness Counsellor. I’m here to offer students support, a fresh perspective and guidance in times of stress or difficulty. When I’m not working I love travelling, keeping active, hanging out with friends and family and finding the spiciest food in Vancouver and abroad.


References

American Psychiatric Association. (2020). Seasonal affective disorder.
Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder

Canadian Mental Health Association (2020). Seasonal affective disorder.
Retrieved from https://cmha.bc.ca/documents/seasonal-affective-disorder-2/

The University of British Columbia. (2020). How to get a light device.
https://sad.psychiatry.ubc.ca/resources/public-resources/how-to-get-a-light-device/


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