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  • Laryssa Levesque

Worried About The "Winter Blues"? Here are 5 Tips to Help Prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder

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.

how to treat seasonal depression

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?