With the return of winter comes darker, colder days and too few hours of sunlight. You might notice a change in your mood around this time of year too. If it feels like more than just a few tough days, it might be seasonal affective disorder (SAD). In this blog, we’ll look at what is seasonal affective disorder, how to identify symptoms and what you can do about it.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

A new season often brings a change in our perspectives or moods. We might be excited about the upcoming holiday season, or we could be stressed about the busy time of year. But if you feel like you’re struggling with something more than just the winter blues, you could have seasonal affective disorder (SAD). It’s a type of depression that occurs during the same season each year - commonly winter, but some people may experience it during the summer too.

In Canada, SAD affects about 3% of Canadians each year, but about 15% experience milder forms of it. It tends to affect women, children and teens the most. Having a family history of depression increases your chance of SAD impacting you in your lifetime too. Because of the element of seasonal change, researchers believe one of the primary causes is change in the amount of daylight. Sunlight is important to our ‘internal clocks’, our circadian rhythm that helps our body have energy during the day and sleepiness at night. The lack of sunlight during the winter can also disrupt neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine that play an important role in our moods and mental wellbeing.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

Symptoms look a lot like the symptoms of depression. If you have SAD, you may experience some or most of these, depending on the severity of it. The following symptoms are from the Canadian Association for Mental Health (CAMH):

The major symptom to watch out for is a very down, sad mood:

  • Present most days and lasts most of the day
  • Lasts for more than two weeks
  • Impacts your ability to work, function normally at home, in relationships, or at school

Other common symptoms highlighted by CAMH:

  • Changes to appetite and weight
  • Sleep problems, including trouble falling asleep and oversleeping
  • Loss of interest in activities that normally appeal to you
  • Social withdrawal
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating and trouble with decision making
  • Crying easily
  • Thoughts of harming yourself

How to Avoid Seasonal Affective Disorder

You might be wondering how you can avoid seasonal affective disorder. While you may not be able to avoid all risk, there are a number of things you can do to treat symptoms. First and foremost, if you think you might be suffering, seek help. Discuss your symptoms with your doctor, who might refer you to a mental health professional.

Here are some things you can do to help avoid seasonal affective disorder or treat your symptoms:

  1. Seek the light - because the change in daylight is one of the primary causes of SAD, get out during the day whenever you can to get natural sunlight exposure. You can also use light therapy, which is artificial light to replicate natural light. Some alarm clocks help wake you up with an increasing amount of light, which is especially helpful in winter when we’re typically waking up before sunrise.
  2. Socialize - fight the urge to hibernate and plan some social activities with family and friends. Put a few events in your calendar so you have these outings to look forward to. Socializing helps create connections and breaks patterns of isolation that can contribute to symptoms of depression. Even if you can’t physically meet up, a FaceTime call can help break that isolation.
  3. Stick to a schedule and good habits - the cold winter days might lead to you wanting to break some habits like going to the gym or getting out of the bed at the same time each day. But sticking to a schedule and healthy habits during your day helps remind your body and mind that it’s time to get into gear during the day and wind down at night. This can help with sleeping at night, which can often be a struggle for people suffering. Check out our healthy morning habits blog for tips on starting your day.
  4. Move your body - exercise has a number of benefits, but like other forms of depression it can also help those with SAD. The feel-good chemicals released during exercise can help combat SAD, while the movement itself can help with weight gain that is associated with the disorder. Despite the cold, try to get that movement in outside, and move your body while also getting some natural light.
  5. Get away - routines and schedules are great, but we often need breaks from our busy lives. If possible, find a sunny and/or warm place to escape to for a vacation to give your mind and body a helpful reset.
  6. Try journalling - putting your thoughts to paper can be a helpful way to work through feelings that might be fueling your seasonal affective disorder. Another option is a gratitude journal, which can help improve your mood.
  7. Avoid alcohol - while a few drinks may seem tempting, think again. Alcohol does not help depression, so try to avoid it or cut it out altogether.
  8. Seek vitamin D - if you live in the northern hemisphere, chances are you’re in need of supplemental vitamin D, especially during the winter. We can get vitamin D from the sun, but the lack of sunlight in the winter makes this a problem. Eat vitamin D rich foods like salmon, eggs, cow’s milk or fortified yogurt, and consider a vitamin D supplement.

If you find yourself suffering from seasonal affective disorder, ask for help and focus on ways you can improve your symptoms.