As the days get shorter and temperatures start to dip, a surprising number of people find that their mood takes a nosedive as well. If you’ve ever experienced increased lethargy, irritability, or sadness during the winter months, you’re not alone. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that affects millions globally at a specific time of year, usually in the winter. Here in Canada, it is estimated that at least 15% of the population will experience SAD at least once in their lifetime, with the likelihood increasing in populations residing in the northern territories.
Those with recurring SAD experience a range of symptoms that can impact them anywhere from mildly to severely. These include social withdrawal, loss of interest in most activities, low mood, fatigue, sleeping more than usual, weight gain, and carbohydrate cravings. While these symptoms are similar to those of clinical depression, they are cyclical in nature, often subsiding as spring and summer approach.
Several theories explain why the change in weather and lack of sunlight produces these symptoms:
Melatonin, the hormone responsible for sleep, tends to be produced in higher quantities when it’s dark. Extended periods of darkness, like those experienced during the winter months, can lead to an overproduction of melatonin, resulting in excessive sleepiness and a disruption in the body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm.
Serotonin, commonly referred to as the “feel-good hormone,” is another crucial player in mood regulation. Exposure to sunlight can stimulate serotonin production. When daylight is scarce, serotonin levels may drop, leading to symptoms of depression.
Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D is synthesized in our skin in response to sunlight and has a variety of health benefits, including mood regulation. A deficiency in Vitamin D has been linked to depression and other mood disorders.
Poor Weather & Cognitive Association
Weather conditions are often tied to our emotional memories. For instance, the association of sunny days with joyful events and gloomy weather with sad or difficult times can trigger corresponding moods. Even if we are not consciously aware of these associations, they can still impact how we feel. Overcast skies, rain, or snow can send subtle cues to our brain, leading to feelings of confinement or gloominess.
Bad weather can also lead to less time spent outdoors, which in turn reduces physical activity which is a natural mood booster. It’s far easier to jump out of bed on a bright and sunny morning to go for a walk or run than it is when it’s dark and rainy outside.
Coping With Seasonal Affective Disorder
Fortunately, there are several ways those suffering with SAD can support themselves through the fall and winter months:
Light therapy is one of the most commonly recommended treatments for SAD. It involves sitting or working near a light box that mimics natural outdoor light for a specified period each day. Typically, 20-30 minutes each morning is recommended.
For severe cases of SAD, a healthcare provider might recommend antidepressants. SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) like fluoxetine (Prozac) are generally the preferred choice.
Vitamin D and Omega-3
Low levels of Vitamin D are associated with symptoms of depression so a daily supplement can make a difference. In addition, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help alleviate symptoms of depression so an omega supplement, or increased intake of fatty fish like salmon, can be helpful.
Virtual Reality (VR) Immersion
A new wave of research is looking into the power of VR to combat SAD. This involves immersing oneself in a virtual environment that simulates a sunny and lively outdoor atmosphere. Although still in its early stages, preliminary findings suggest that VR experiences could act as a supplement to traditional light therapy by providing a more holistic environment for mood improvement.
Exercise releases endorphins, which naturally elevates your mood. Even a simple 30-minute walk can make a significant difference in how you feel. If it’s too cold to exercise outdoors, try indoor activities like swimming, yoga, kick-boxing or spin classes.
Try to avoid or decrease sugary and processed foods as these can lead to fluctuations in blood sugar levels, affecting your mood.
Isolation is a major contributor to depressive symptoms. Make plans with friends, or engage in community activities to keep your spirits up.
Therapists can offer coping mechanisms tailored specifically for you, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness based techniques.
As the season shifts, remember that it’s okay to ask for help and take steps to make your winter more bearable. There’s no need to hibernate emotionally until spring.