The days are getting shorter and the warm weather is slowly fading, and for many who struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), worries of what the Winter months will bring are starting to creep in. The "Winter Blues" is a form of depression that plagues many people over the colder months, leaving them feeling sad, down, and depressed, sometimes for seemingly "no reason." If you are one of the millions of people struggling with this disorder every year, then keep reading to learn more about what SAD is and how you can protect yourself from it.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of clinical depression with a recurrent seasonal pattern. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), symptoms of depression are apparent for several months spanning the late Fall/Winter season, beginning and ending around the same time each year, and then going into full remission for the Spring/Summer months.
Signs and Symptoms of Seasonal Depression
In order to diagnose SAD, the same criteria for Major Depressive Disorder are required, with the specification of a seasonal pattern in symptoms. As with depression, common signs and symptoms of SAD include:
Feeling sad or depressed most of the day, nearly every day
Loss of interest or pleasure in previously enjoyed activties
Changes in appetite; with SAD this typically involves an increase in appetite and overeating, often leading to weight gain
Changes in sleep; with SAD this typically involves hypersomnia (aka oversleeping)
Constant fatigue and low energy levels, despite sleeping more
Difficulty concentrating, feeling in a fog
Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
Social withdrawal; going into "hibernation"
Increased irritability or agitation
Thoughts of self-harm or suicide
As with all mental health disorders, symptoms may vary across individuals and each person may experience the same symptoms at varying degrees. In order to be clinically diagnosed with SAD, symptoms must be present for at least 2 years, but if your symptoms are causing you distress, then speaking to your doctor and/or a counsellor is advised.
Causes of Seasonal Depression
Although the exact cause of SAD is yet to be determined, there are several known factors that influence the onset of symptoms:
Low Serotonin: The production of our bodies "happy" neurotransmitter, serotonin, is influenced by sunlight. Therefore, the reduced daylight hours in the Fall/Winter lead to lower productions of the chemical which is linked to feelings of depression, as well as changes in appetite, sleep, memory, and sex drive.
Melatonin: The natural hormone melatonin is produced when it is dark to help regulate our sleep cycle by making us tired at night and then more awake when levels drop as the sun comes up. Longer winter nights and shorter daylight hours lead to higher levels of melatonin, therefore making us sleepy, groggy, and lethargic.
Circadian Rhythm: We all have an internal biological clock that responds to changes in daylight to regulate our sleep, hormones, mood, and appetite. This rhythm is also influenced by serotonin and melatonin levels, so altogether, the chemical imbalances and reduced daylight make it hard for our bodies to adjust to the seasonal changes.
How to Prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder
1. Reflect on your past history with SAD
At the heart of preventative strategies is knowing what causes or triggers our symptoms so that we can intervene early and set ourselves up for success. Knowledge is power in this regard, so sit down and think about what your history with SAD looks like.
Here are some helpful questions to reflect on:
When do my symptoms usually start?
What thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and behaviours do I experience that tell me that I am starting to struggle? When my symptoms are at peak?
Does anything make my symptoms worse or better?
Are there any patterns in when I tend to struggle most with symptoms, or when I seem to cope ok?
Has there been a Winter where I didn't struggle with SAD? What was different about that season?
2. Implement strategies early
Develop a routine: We are creatures of habit; and it takes on average 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic. Starting to get into a routine that implements depression-fighting strategies before Winter hits is crucial to building up your resilience to experiencing symptoms. It is a matter of breaking old habits, and establishing new healthier ones.
Sunlight exposure- regardless of the time of year, spending time in the sun makes us feel good because it increases Vitamin D and other brain chemicals. If you live in a basement apartment or your work hours interfere with your ability to get some sun, try increasing natural light by opening windows or scheduling your breaks when the sun is still up. Make sunlight a priority to help your mental health all year around.
Sleep- a consistent sleep routine is important to keep our circadian rhythm and brain chemicals happy. If you struggle to fall asleep, try implementing various sleep hygiene techniques to get a better night's rest and establish a sound sleep schedule. As well, there are apps to help you determine the best time to go to bed and wake up based on your natural sleep-wake cycle. Read our blog here with more ways to improve your sleep quality.
Diet- get in the habit of including foods in your diet that help stabilize and boost mood, such as whole grains, nuts, fish, leafy greens, and complex carbs (rather than simple carbs, such as cookies and cakes) as they help increase serotonin levels.
Speak to a counsellor: Start therapy before your symptoms appear or become unbearable. Many people attend therapy only when things are bad, but it is actually beneficial to talk to a counsellor when you are doing well as a preventative measure or to maintain your progress. You can work on preparing to cope with SAD by learning new skills ahead of time.
3. Change how you view SAD
Approximately 2-6% of Canadians will experience clinical SAD in their lifetime, with another 15% of people experiencing a more mild form of SAD. You are not alone in this. If you ever have thoughts like "what is wrong with me?" or "why can't I just be happy like everyone else?" or even like "Winter is going to be awful", reframing how you view yourself and SAD is one effective way to not only treat SAD, but also a way to prevent it.
Studies have shown that through various Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) techniques that focus on challenging and changing unhelpful thoughts, individuals suffering from SAD have longer treatment gains compared to other treatment modalities, such as light therapy. In other words, by improving how we feel by changing the way we think, we can develop a more compassionate and realistic mindset that protects us from SAD in future seasons.
Pro Recommendation: If you are looking for a self-help book that is CBT based, Mind Over Mood is a great introductory workbook and is available on Amazon!
4. Increase enjoyment in your life
One of the best treatments for depression is a CBT approach called Behavioural Activation, which essentially involves engaging in activities that bring you a sense of pleasure and/or accomplishment. Those that struggle with depression often have lower activity levels, so by increasing our activity in a meaningful way, we feel good about ourselves for overcoming our lack of motivation, which in turn reinforces the behaviour and helps boost our confidence and mood.
So, when establishing a routine as a preventative measure, be sure to include activities that lift you up, recharge your battery, and give you a sense of fulfilment. That way, when you head into the Winter months, you will be habitually engaging in positive activities that will make you more resilient to feelings of sadness and low mood.
5. Create a coping plan
Many people tend to fear the winter months because they know that seasonal depression is bound to hit them. We can alleviate some anxiety by outlining exactly what to do to reduce the chances of struggling with SAD and to mitigate depressive symptoms should they strike.
Pulling from some of your answers from the previous reflection questions and the tips outlined above, jot down what you could do as coping strategies to help prevent and treat your symptoms. Here is a sample:
[Download a template Coping Plan for free!]
Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder
In addition to all of the preventative strategies previously outlined, there are a few gold standard treatments for seasonal affective disorder. Given that SAD is caused by disruptions in your circadian rhythm and production of melatonin and serotonin, light therapy is regarded as the primary treatment for SAD as it helps regulate your body's natural biological state. You can invest in a light therapy lamp as well as increasing your exposure to natural sunlight.
Antidepressant medications that target serotonin receptors are another widely used treatment for SAD. In fact, preliminary data suggests that taking the antidepressant medication Bupropion (aka Wellbutrin) before the winter months can help reduce the likelihood of developing SAD in the future. However, speak to your doctor to determine if this is the right treatment for you, and definitely speak to a counsellor as another form of treatment for SAD.
Lastly, Vitamin D supplements have shown a positive effect on treating SAD as there is research linking low Vitamin D levels to depression. Again, speak to your doctor to determine if taking supplements is a safe treatment for you.
The Bottom Line
Seasonal Affective Disorder or Seasonal Depression affects many of us every year as the Winter season starts. The shorter days and reduced sunlight contribute to biological changes in our body that lead to symptoms of depression. Although you might struggle with SAD every year, you don't have to do it alone or suffer. There are several strategies to prevent and treat SAD that you can effectively do. And finally, speaking to a licensed mental health professional can help you cope during the winter months and help you regain the control that your depression has had over you in previous years.
Our team of online and in-person Barrie counsellors provide quality and effective counselling services in Barrie and virtually across Ontario to individuals (6+), couples and families. We also offer an Affordable Therapy Program that provides counselling services in Barrie to individuals (12+) who are facing financial challenges that need mental health support.