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SAD: How to Cope When the Gloom Creeps In

Ask An Expert – Seasonal Affective Disorder: When it’s More Than Just “Winter Blues” 

As the light of summer sun fades, the days get shorter and many make their daily commute to and from work in the dark. It’s no wonder, then, that the gloom of depression can descend upon us in the winter months. 

Mood changes, feeling “down,” and pervasive gloom can all signal Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD. While often referred to as the “Winter Blues,” Seasonal Affective Disorder can be diagnosed as a form of Depression

For many, SAD begins to creep up as the daylight shortens and the leaves begin to fall. With the daylight fading, our natural circadian rhythms are altered, causing a disruption to our bodies and minds. The sun gives us vitamin-D and is a natural stimulant, and when we only have a few hours of sunlight in a day (if any), our mood can change significantly. “Serotonin levels also may decrease in response to a reduction in daylight hours, resulting in symptoms of depression,” states the Mayo Clinic website. Neurotransmitters such as Serotonin help to regulate mood. 

The disorder varies greatly between individuals, with symptoms ranging from anxiety and fatigue, to tearfulness, low self esteem, and sometimes debilitating depression that can impact all aspects life. Other common symptoms include irritability, mood swings, changes to appetite and sleep habits, and fluctuations in weight.

Many people are unaware of the gender bias of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Research shows that SAD affects three times as many women as men, specifically women during their childbearing years. Those with pre-existing mood disorders are affected at even higher rates, along with those who are neurodivergent. 

“When a client comes to me exhibiting symptoms of SAD, the first thing I do is congratulate them on their honesty and vulnerability. A lot of times people think struggling with mental health symptoms makes them weak, however they are so common and prevalent, and there is so much strength in reaching out and asking for help,” shares registered psychotherapist Ally Florence MA.  

“In terms of treatment options,” she continues, “there are a number of different methods to cope with SAD. Light therapy is a proven beneficial treatment for SAD in particular, as the symptoms of SAD often increase when the seasons change and we lose the number of hours of light in the day,”. 

“Psychotherapy, and having the safe space to talk to someone, is another method that has proven to be helpful, to ensure we’re not keeping things inside or feeling alone,” she shares. “Additionally, adding in or keeping a pre-existing positive routine of maintaining physical, emotional and social health is so important. When we focus first and foremost on taking care of our basic needs of eating well, staying hydrated, maintaining a healthy sleep and exercise schedule, despite the challenges that arise with our mental health, we put ourselves in the best position to continue to make changes moving forward”.

While a mix of the above treatments are often enough, in some cases if symptoms are severe, medication is also an option. “Medication has also been shown to have incredibly positive side effects. Sometimes our brain chemistry can use a little extra support to get us to a place where we can fully allow ourselves to benefit from therapy, as studies continually show the efficacy of the combination of medication and therapy, combined.”

As with any mental health disorder, stigma can stop some people from seeking help. Remember, SAD affects approximately 15% of Canadians, so you are not alone. While feelings of tiredness are not uncommon in the colder, darker months, if these symptoms ring true to you or someone you know, finding support and guidance can make all the difference between surviving and thriving.

Brittany Johnson

Brittany is a Toronto based freelance writer, avid traveller, sheet mask hoarder and Nora Ephron enthusiast.