Seasonal affective disorder: how to cope with the ‘winter blues’

While for some winter means fun on the ski hill and snowball fights with friends, others can become depressed during the colder months of the year, a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), research in Ontario suggests that 2 to 3 per cent of Canadians will experience SAD in their lifetime, and an additional 15 per cent will experience a milder form of seasonal depression.

Symptoms for people who are suffering from SAD, often called the ‘winter blues,’ appear much like those of regular depression. However there is one key difference, according to Laura Armstrong, assistant professor of psychology at Saint Paul University.

“Major depressive disorder itself is less predictable as to when it might come up, whereas SAD has the seasonal pattern. The symptoms are identical,” Armstrong said.

Rita Karyn Khavich, 24-year-old administrative clerk  for Community and Social Services at the City of Ottawa,  said her SAD symptoms started appearing while she lived at home around six or seven years ago. Her mom made her aware of the term ‘winter blues,’ but it wasn’t until her first year of university that Khavich looked into her condition further.

“It was my roommates in first year who noticed I would get down and said ‘this is not normal,’ and pushed me to go see a counsellor. As the counsellor explained [SAD] . . . it made sense, and I was relieved to finally have an explanation for what I was feeling,” Khavich said.

According to Armstrong, people with SAD can suffer from bipolar disorder or other conditions throughout the year, however, some may not have mental health problems until the winter months arrive.

People with the condition feel tired, sad, can experience cases of nausea, sleep disruption and may remove themselves from social situations and activities they are normally involved in.

Hannah Rivkin, a masters student in the University of Ottawa’s health sciences program, said she has also suffered from SAD.

“It’s definitely something that runs in the family. My mom is super prone to it and I am as well, it creeps up on you all of a sudden,” she said. “My mom always says in April ‘around this time of year you wanna get to spring, and you really have to pay attention to the crocusts popping up in the snow,’ because that for her is something that helps her see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

This introverted behavior during the winter months is common because colder weather makes people less likely to go outside and engage with activities they would other times of the year, Armstrong added. This is something that is important to consider when preventing SAD.

For Canadians, SAD is more common due to the northern location of the country, according to the CMHA.

“People who come into my office, I would help them come up with a plan of activities they can engage in—social activities for them. I would help maintain these levels of activity, and by giving them something to look forward to, this can help prevent cases of SAD, and maintain positive engagement,” Armstrong said.

Khavich said she found what is most important for overcoming SAD is her faith.

“My first line of defense is prayer and a lot of support from my community. Because for me, my faith community is my family,” Khavich said.

She added that she’s not a big fan of medications to treat her depression, although she said she does take vitamin D supplements that help a lot.

Khavish also said sometimes her SAD symptoms make it hard for her to get up for work.

“I’m a very stubborn person, and often the mornings are hardest, so if I find there’s a day where I can’t get out of bed, I just kind of make myself get over this. I can’t call in sick, I’m new in my position—I need this job, so I just kind of work through it,” she said.

Armstrong added that SAD is most common for women in their early 20s.

Children and the elderly are also less likely to suffer from the condition.

“Senior citizens have had a lifetime to build up those coping tools. They are involved in social, political and community activities and have found a way to engage with these activities more than younger people. Seniors are less likely to get depression in general,” she said.

With the bountiful access to technology people have nowadays, avoiding physical interactions with each other in favour of living in a digital world has become a common occurrence.

Armstrong said young people may not be building the same coping skills as senior citizens did when they were growing up, and that could be a problem down the line.

“The concern is that if people spend so much time engaging without direct contact, they could be more susceptible to depression, because they are not actively engaging with the world around them,” Armstrong said.

This active versus passive engagement can also have an effect on SAD. The temptation when the weather is cold outside can be to stay warm and sit in front of the TV or binge watch Netflix.

However, this passive engagement with the broader world can lead to symptoms of SAD and potentially further problems down the line.

Armstrong said the effect technology has on rates of SAD and other depressions has not been studied yet because it would be a new phenomenon, but added it does concern her.

Another major factor linked to SAD is the lack of sunlight people get during the winter months, which makes SAD particularly tough for Canadians.

The science behind SAD

Similar to other forms of depression, SAD is caused by an unbalance of hormones in the brain.

Melatonin is one of these hormones which is important for regulating the body’s circadian rhythms, or your body clock.

A lack of sunlight during the day or an early sunset can leave the body feeling tired due to unbalanced melatonin levels, and can lead to SAD.

To prevent SAD, there has to be a balance with another chemical excreted by the brain, serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter often associated with alertness and awakeness.

According to Seasonal Affective Disorder: An Overview by Andres Magnusson and Diane Boivin, the links between increased levels of melatonin due to lack of sunlight and SAD are not concrete, but serotonin treatments were found to help alleviate symptoms.

One method of treatment to stabilize these levels is light therapy, which involves patients sitting in front of a light box anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours.

Usage of light therapy can boost serotonin production in the brain, and give a person more energy, Magnusson and Boivin wrote.

Glasses with lights built in have also been built to help make this treatment more convenient.

In Ottawa, the Oxygen Medi Spa offers an alternative treatment for SAD sufferers that uses bright LED lights to help boost seratonin levels.

According to Magnusson and Boivin, light therapy treatments works best in the morning.

Treatment for SAD sufferers

The CMHA suggests some additional tips for fighting the ‘winter blues,’ including spending more time outside during daylight hours, installing skylights and lamps, and building physical activity into your lifestyle, according to their website.

For Rivkin, she has certain activities which she always does to keep her going.

“I like to listen to podcasts about spiritual things which can just take me away, and I also bake, so I’ll do those things together. I also find socialization really important. With my roomate when it’s the greyest of days, we always invite people over,” Rivkin said.

Along with increasing your social interactions during the winter, which Armstrong mentioned as a positive treatment for SAD sufferers, it’s also important to get active.

During the winter months, Rivkin said she enjoys activities like yoga and skiing to help fight SAD.

“It gives you something to look forward, and can get you out of the house even though it gets dark at like four o’clock in the afternoon,” she said.

But, Rivkin said the most important thing to do when treating SAD is taking some time to reflect.

“The best thing people can do is know themselves, and admitting to yourself that this is something that you have to deal with. But then again, it’s only temporary, it will go away, and it’ll get better.”

Graphics by Manoj Thayalan