Seasonal Affective Disorder: What it is and how to deal with it as Toronto sees more gloomy weather

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity or making any changes to your diet, medications, or lifestyle.

Although Blue Monday started as a hoax, it rings true in cold places like Canada. (Getty)

As the winter chill intensifies and skies take on a perpetual gray hue, many Canadians find themselves struggling with seasonal affective disorder.

Blue Monday, the “most depressing day of the year,” is just around the corner, and it’s important to know how to navigate the emotional challenges that come with this season.

According to the Canadian Center for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH), “there is no scientific basis why the third Monday in January has been considered Blue Monday,” adding that it started as a marketing ploy by ‘a travel company.

But, it stuck because in Canada, it rings true. “Daylight is very important, the nights are long and cold, the holiday bills are coming and most of us are further away than we might expect,” the agency explained.

The CBC recently reported that December saw “record amounts of fog and rain” in Toronto. “What was missing this year was the sun,” according to Environment Canada climatologist David Phillips, quoted by the CBC. The station reported that “the days probably won’t be much brighter this winter. Gray and rainy weather is expected to continue through January and February.”

This means the start of 2024 could be a “difficult time” for those struggling Seasonal affective disorder.

Data from 2020 suggests that about 15 per cent of Canadians experience “winter blues” a mild form of the disorder, while another two to three per cent are severely affected.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a medical condition that affects people at certain times of the year, especially when the weather gets colder and the days get shorter.

SAD can affect your quality of life and can hinder your ability to create a sustainable year-round routine. Although it is not curable, people can find ways to manage living with the disorder.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is seasonal affective disorder and what are the symptoms?

Middle aged woman sleeping in a bed at home in the dark.

Excessive sleep and lack of energy are symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. (Photo via Getty Images)

SAD is a form of depression that affects people seasonally. This is especially true when the weather turns colder and the days get shorter.

Although many people experience “the winter blues,” a smaller percentage of people are diagnosed with SAD.

During the winter, people with blue eyes may want to stay indoors more often. They may also want to participate in activities they usually do in the summer.

However, people with SAD may experience the following symptoms:

  • Feeling sad and depressed

  • Oversleeping

  • Loss of energy and increased feeling of tiredness

  • Changes in appetite

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Feeling indifferent to personal interests and hobbies

  • Suicidal ideation

Who does seasonal affective disorder affect?

Like clinical depression, factors such as your family history, biological characteristics, and your psychological background can affect whether or not you have a tendency to develop SAD.

However, it is more common for young women to develop the disease.

When is seasonal affective disorder most common?

snow on the ground in a park at night with footprints.

Seasonal affective disorder is more common during the fall and winter when it’s colder, the days are shorter, and there is less natural light. (Photo via Getty Images)

SAD is more common during the fall and winter when it is colder, the days are shorter, and there is less daylight.

Experts believe that these factors may stimulate a chemical change in the brain that causes people to experience temporary depressive symptoms.

How to relieve the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder

Living with seasonal affective disorder is not easy, but there are ways to cope with the condition. There are also ways to prevent SAD from affecting your quality of life during the colder months.

Consider the following methods to help ease SAD symptoms.

1. Use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Because SAD is a form of depression, it will need to be diagnosed by a licensed medical professional.

Like clinical depression, cognitive behavioral therapy can help people with SAD develop coping skills for the disorder.

In fact, CBT has been shown to have the most lasting effects for SAD.

2. Do light therapy

A study published by the National Library of Medicine determined that light therapy effectively reduced SAD symptoms.

Light therapy is a method of dealing with SAD that involves sitting in front of a light box for half an hour a day to activate your hypothalamus and restore your circadian rhythm.

The light must be made to treat SAD and have a brightness of at least 10,000 lux to be effective.

Light therapy is a common treatment for a variety of conditions, from autoimmune disorders such as psoriasis and eczema, to wound healing, depression and seasonal affective disorder, to circadian rhythm sleep disorders.

Light therapy has been shown to effectively reduce symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. (Photo via Getty Images)

3. Get out as much as possible

Although it’s much less appealing during the winter, experts suggest going outside during the day to combat SAD symptoms.

This allows your body to absorb as much daylight as possible while still moving your body. If you’re inside, you can also sit near a window to get some benefits from the absorption of sunlight.

4. Exercise

Exercise is an effective way to combat the symptoms of SAD. This is because it helps your body release endorphins, regulate sleep, increase metabolism and reduce anxiety.

Try aerobic exercises like walking, running and dancing. Gentle activities such as yoga, swimming and stretching are also beneficial.

5. Consider antidepressants

Not everyone requires antidepressants to treat SAD, but many people benefit from this method.

Because SAD is a form of depression, commonly prescribed antidepressants may work to combat your symptoms.

Talk to your health care provider or doctor if you are interested in looking into antidepressants as a treatment option.

person working out in green tights with a kettlebell in a gym.

Exercise is an effective way to combat the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. (Photo via Getty Images)

6. Head south

While moving isn’t an option for everyone, people with SAD can benefit from living somewhere warmer and with more sunlight during the winter.

The bottom line

Almost three per cent of Canadians are expected to be diagnosed with SAD each year, accounting for approximately 10 per cent of all diagnosed cases of depression.

Canadians are especially at risk because the country’s distance from the equator makes winter days shorter and colder.

If you have SAD, you may want to consider some of the methods above for coping with the condition. Talk to your doctor or health care provider to determine which approach works best for you.

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