The winter months can mean hibernation for many with the dark and dreary days of winter here in Toronto. The lack of sunlight and colder weather can have a profound impact on our mood. It can leave us feeling depressed, tired, withdrawn and unmotivated. If you live in Toronto, you’ve probably heard about or may have experienced seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that typically occurs during the fall and winter months when the days get shorter, and there’s a decrease in daylight hours. It’s also referred to as the winter blues.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
The symptoms of SAD are similar to depression. However, SAD is triggered by a reduction in daylight hours. SAD can be difficult to differentiate from other forms of depression because of the similarity in symptoms. While there is an overlap in symptoms between SAD and generalized depression, the most significant indicator is the period during which these symptoms occur. The symptoms will appear and disappear during specific seasons.
The following are the most common symptoms of SAD:
- exhaustion or low energy
- daytime drowsiness or fatigue
- difficulty concentrating
- suicidal thoughts
- social withdrawal or avoidance
- loss of interest
- decreased sex drive
- increased sleep or difficulty sleeping
- weight gain
Reverse SAD, also known as summer SAD, can make the summer months challenging as a small but significant minority of people suffer from summer SAD. It is thought that Reverse SAD is the result of too much sunlight, which leads to changes in the production of melatonin.
- difficulty sleeping
- decreased appetite
- weight loss
Causes of SAD
While the exact cause of SAD is unknown, researchers hypothesize that SAD may be linked to an imbalance in the brain. This imbalance impacts the production of two neurotransmitters, serotonin and melatonin.
Serotonin is the “feel good” hormone, which regulates our moods. Low levels of light are associated with a reduction in serotonin in the body. As serotonin levels drop, so does our mood. Low light levels also cause an increase in melatonin, the hormone that makes us feel sleepy.
Treatment for SAD
1. Light therapy
Light therapy is an effective way to decrease SAD symptoms. Light therapy consists of turning on a light box, which gives you exposure to bright light, for 15 to 30 minutes a day. It’s believed that light therapy resets our internal clock. Studies have also shown that bright light exposure can increase levels of serotonin and decrease levels of melatonin.
Yes, it can be challenging to get to the gym when you’re not feeling great. But exercise has been proven to relieve depression, including SAD. Exercise boosts the production of feel-good chemicals that decrease depressive symptoms. If you can’t get to the gym, walking for 30 minutes has been shown to alleviate depression.
3. Get outside
Despite the drastic reduction in sunlight, get outside when you can. Bundle up and go out for a walk so you can soak up the natural sunlight.
4. Talk it out
Speaking to a counsellor or psychotherapist can be helpful. Together we could see if there’s anything else that may be contributing to your symptoms and discuss coping strategies to help treat the depression.