Dr. Harpreet Chauhan is the head of St. Paul’s department of psychiatry. Here she examines the link between gloomy weather and a mental-health condition aptly known as SAD, and offers ways to cope.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression that can afflict people starting in the fall, when days become shorter, greyer and colder. It usually affects adults, and mainly women, who live far away from the equator, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. The CMHA also says that about two to three per cent of Canadians experience SAD in their lifetime, while another 15 per cent develop “blues” that don’t fully fit the SAD definition. There is a spectrum related to the post-holiday season and the weather.
The disorder’s symptoms include low moods, a lack of interest in activities that people normally enjoy, and a lack of general energy.
The theory behind this seasonal disorder is that our bodies respond differently to daylight. The shorter daylight hours may lead to increased melatonin, lethargy and decreased mood. One theory is that light entering the eyes can cause hormone changes in the body. Generally, we believe it is caused by multiple factors including our hormones, genetics and environment.
If you find yourself experiencing some of the symptoms of SAD now that fall is here, the following approaches may help:
Expose yourself: Generally, more light exposure is recommended as a therapy for those with winter/seasonal mood disorders. This can include getting outside more particularly on bright days but could also include sitting by a bright window or using light therapy. Special light boxes for this purpose are available at some pharmacies and retailers.
Eat right, drink right and be merry: Diet may improve the mood as well. Winter blues can increase cravings for foods high in sugar and carbohydrates. Making sure your diet is balanced and includes plenty of fruits and vegetables may help. Avoid alcohol and other substances if you can.
Move: Activity can help any mood disorder, including the January blues. Research has shown that exercise of 30 minutes a day several times a week can be effective. But any type and amount of physical exercise can help. Going for short walks outside during your lunch or coffee break is a quick and simple way to lighten heavy moods.
Get social – without social media: Connecting with people in person or involving oneself in an interesting activity that doesn’t include watching TV or browsing the internet is a great way to lift a mood. In fact, research has shown that extensive use of social media can increase depression and anxiety in some people. You can also spend more time with family or friends, volunteer or start a new hobby you’ve always been meaning to try.
Imagine and observe: Try to visualize the sunny days of spring. Observe how the days are getting longer in January and focus on the first few signs of the changing season, such as people outside biking or the buds in the garden.
Also seek counselling if there are ongoing stressors or anxiety in your life. And of course, if your mood gets dangerously low to the point of feeling hopeless or suicidal, it is important to see a doctor right away.
While seasonal mood disorders diminish our sense of happiness and well-being, they do have a natural ending once the days get longer. And that may be the most uplifting thought of all.
A version of this story ran on The Daily Scan on January 21, 2019