I’ll just say it: I hate winter.
Between freezing temperatures, fewer hours of daylight, slippery sidewalks and mountains of brown slush, I’d be happiest if I never wore a winter jacket again.
But my disdain for the season isn’t all superficial; I suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a type of depression characterized by symptoms like low mood, a loss of interest in daily activities, fatigue, changes in appetite and decreased concentration. It occurs during the fall and winter, and lifts when the weather does. (Some people get summer depression, however, which often starts during the spring.)
“Research suggests that at any one time, about five to 10 per cent of patients seen in [doctor’s] offices report symptoms of SAD,” says Sam Mikail, a clinical psychologist and director of mental health solutions at Sun Life, which operates health hub Lumino Health.
“The number of people who will get SAD at some point of their life is somewhere between half a per cent to three per cent.”
Experts like Mikail aren’t sure of the exact cause of SAD, but winter sadness is believed to be triggered by reduced hours of sunlight, which can disrupt the body’s biological clock (circadian rhythm), and cause a drop in serotonin — the brain chemical that affects mood. Changes in melatonin levels likely play a role, too.
Are you at risk for SAD?
There are also risk factors for SAD. These include living with other mental health conditions, like major depression or bipolar disorder, a family history of depression, and living further from the equator.
While knowing this type of depression is seasonal helps, it doesn’t make experiencing it any less bleak. I’ve googled just about every SAD remedy there is to boost my low moods. Last year, desperate for a daily dose of vitamin D, I decided to try light therapy by using a SAD lamp.
About five to 10 per cent of patients seen in doctor’s offices report symptoms of SAD
SAD lamps radiate light that mimics sunlight in an effort to boost serotonin and melatonin. I read endless lamp reviews online and found the most affordable one with the best ratings. It promised to “help fight the winter blues, circadian sleep disorders, jet lag and low energy” with its 10,000 LUX of glare-free white light. It was cheaper than a flight to Hawaii at $150, so I bought it.
When the lamp finally arrived, I found it to be somewhat helpful in lifting my spirits. I followed its instructions and sat in front of it for about 20 to 30 minutes a day, looking as chilled out as a cat basking in the sun. While Mikail says light therapy can be an effective way to treat SAD — if you buy the right lamp.
“Some that are advertised don’t provide the appropriate type of light and light intensity,” he explains. “So if you experience SAD and a light unit has been recommended, be sure to seek the input of a qualified professional when purchasing the unit.”
Even without a SAD lamp, Mikail says light is an effective tool to help fight seasonal depression. He suggests taking advantage of every opportunity to be exposed to the daylight. “That sounds simple, but when a person is feeling depressed and sleeping more than usual, it’s all too easy to keep the blinds shut and the room dark,” he says.
Aside from light, a big part of combating my own depression is maintaining social activities. Even though getting out of bed some days feels more painful than listening to a U.S. presidential debate, I know I feel better when I do see other humans. Because the pandemic has thrown a curveball into everyone’s social plans, making an effort to connect with loved ones is more important than ever, Mikail says. Video calls, physically distanced walks and even emails help.
“It often helps us realize others feel the same way we do,” he says.
Sometimes the only person I want to speak to during the darkest winter days is my therapist. Therapy can be an incredibly helpful tool for dealing with depression, the SAD variety or otherwise. Mikail says workplace benefits may cover mental health support, which include social workers, psychotherapists, psychologists or psychiatrists. Antidepressants can help treat depression and are also sometimes used to treat severe cases of SAD.
Getting out of bed some days feels more painful than listening to a U.S. presidential debate, I know I feel better when I see other humans
One thing my therapist always encourages me to do is exercise. Of course, when you feel like crap sometimes the last thing you want to do is move, and sometimes all I can muster is a jog around the block. But even that helps: research shows 30 minutes of exercise three to five days a week can boost mood and improve mental well-being. Mikail says a brisk daily walk can also do the trick.
And, an unconventional, not scientifically proven way that I deal with the onset of SAD is by decorating my apartment with holiday decorations as soon as daylight saving time starts. Wreaths, ornaments and pine-scented candles all help winter feel “cosy” — at least up until the New Year. Then, my countdown to spring begins.
Laura Hensley is a freelance writer with Healthing.ca
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