As the days get darker and trees shed their leaves, health experts expect a higher than normal number of people will experience seasonal depression this year given pandemic restrictions are limiting connections with friends and family.
“With the pandemic and everything that has happened this year, there will be an increase in people experiencing seasonal affective disorder,” said Man Bath, CEO and clinical director of Richmond-based MindRight Counselling and Consulting. “We have not been able to go outside as much as in the summer to help us cope and re-energize.”
Seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD, is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in late fall and early winter when there is less sunlight, before dissipating during spring and summer.
SAD, however, is more than just the “winter blues,” according to Shawna Medley, director of Mental Health Services at Trinity Western University. Symptoms can be extremely distressing, overwhelming and can interfere with daily functioning, she added.
“People with SAD experience mood changes and symptoms similar to major depression such as feeling sad or hopeless, having low energy, losing interests in activities you once enjoyed, having difficulty concentrating, and it also often includes hypersomnia (excessive daytime sleepiness), overeating and social withdrawal — people feel like hibernating,” said Medley.
The exact cause of SAD remains unknown, but research has given some biological clues. People with SAD have trouble regulating serotonin, also called the “happy molecule,” which helps people feel good about life.
SAD occurs more often in women and is more common in people with a personal or family history of depression, noted Bath.
How to fight off the “winter blues?”
SAD can be effectively treated with light therapy, antidepressants, counselling or a combination of these, explained Medley. Although symptoms will generally improve on their own with the change of season, spring may feel like a long way away right now and symptoms can improve more quickly with treatment, she added.
“I would encourage everyone vulnerable to SAD to use the dark days of winter to try something new — snowshoeing, cooking differently, visiting parks you’ve never been to before or learning to play a musical instrument, for example,” said Medley. “Sometimes novelty and a sense of accomplishment can help combat low mood.”
Strategies to alleviate SAD:
1: Light therapy: Take advantage of any available natural sunlight or get a light therapy lamp. Exposure to a light lamp with at least 10,000 lux of cool-winter fluorescent light for 20-60 minutes can help.
2: Journaling: Being able to get thoughts and feelings out from your mind and onto paper is a way to externalize thought distortions and negative emotions.
3: Develop an activity board: Write a list of all possible activities you can do either by yourself or with loved ones. Focus on activities that unplug from screens to focus on yourself, such as a walk or reading.
4: Mindful breathing: We often forget to pause and focus on the present moment. There are many forms of guided meditation and breathing techniques online to decrease stress in the body.
5: Have a goal every day/week: We need to have something to accomplish each day or week to keep us motivated and engaged. It doesn’t matter if the goal is small; completing something can create a spark.
6: Find a therapist to talk to: If you feel you have no one to talk to or don’t want to burden your family or friends, connect with a therapist to share your feelings and thoughts in-person or through telehealth.