Most people who live in Canada know what ‘the winter blues’ feel like. The days are shorter, couches seem more inviting and it’s hard to get motivated to go outside.
When these feelings go on for an extended period of time and become an impact on a person’s work, physicality and social life, those symptoms may fall under the umbrella of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
According to Chief Addiction and Mental Health Officer of Alberta Dr. Michael Trew, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder that occurs for a period of time when a person’s day and night rhythm is disturbed by the shortened daylight hours.
“The most common form of SAD is some kind of depressive symptoms that tend to show up at the end of November, and will last to around March.
“Of course, it differs from person to person, but that is what seems to be the high-risk period in our part of the world,” said Trew.
“Like many other forms of depression, people will see changes in sleep patterns, often by sleeping more due to an decrease in energy levels.
“There is a decrease in social activity and ‘lower’ mood. There are also changes in appetite and weight, where often people see an increase in weight.”
Other symptoms may consist of difficulty waking up in the morning, nausea, tendency to oversleep and overeat, especially a craving for carbohydrates, which leads to weight gain.
Other symptoms include a lack of energy, difficulty concentrating on or completing tasks, withdrawal from friends, family, and social activities, and decreased sex drive.
Lots of people will display these symptoms for a short period of time without the need for a diagnosis.
According to Trew, before something can be classified as a disorder, it must make a difference in a person’s daily life function and last for at least a couple of weeks.
“It must make a difference in a person’s life – if you’re feeling irritable and nobody else notices, you wouldn’t call it a disorder,” he said.
“A disorder will cause changes in relationships with people close to you – usually family and friends, and performance at work or school.
“We know that for some people, they will still go to work but aren’t very functional. The extreme level of concern is when people start having suicidal thoughts.”
SAD may sound daunting, but usually only takes a form of mild to moderate depression.
There are several non-pharmaceutical ways to treat these kinds of depression.
“One of the things we know helps with mild to moderate depression is physical activity.
“That’s a bit of a challenge with people who we know have low energy levels – getting out for a walk on a regular basis can be difficult, but if you do that three or four times a week, it does help mild to moderate depression,” said Trew.
He added maintaining contact with a social network of friends and family is also beneficial.
Focusing on positive ‘self-talk’ and moving away from negative thoughts is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy that is also something people can try to battle the blues.
Light therapy is also an option for some people.
“It’s a relatively straightforward idea. We can fix that day/night rhythm problem – that seems to be linked to this mood disorder – by exposing them to relatively bright light for 15 or 20 minutes first thing in the morning.
“For some people, it’s very effective.”
“The idea of light therapy boxes is that we trigger some of the brain’s switches by exposing to relatively bright light.
“Usually, we’re looking to get over 1,000 lux (the measurement light intensity).
“Inside our houses, it’s not bright enough to trigger those switches in our brain. “Interestingly enough, outside on a cloudy day is enough to trigger the brain.”
All of these treatments for SAD are most effective when done on a regular basis as part of a person’s routine.
In some cases, natural remedies such as these are simply not strong enough to combat more severe forms of depression.
In this case and with the development of suicidal thoughts, a person can speak to their doctor about prescription anti-depressants.
“There are a few options to treating SAD is what it comes down to and that is a discussion that is appropriate between a persona and their doctor, as to which method will likely be most effective for them,” said Trew.
“I think the main thing is for many people with relatively mild symptoms, just taking care of yourself in terms of routine eating and sleeping, seeing your friends and getting some exercise, is often enough for those people.
“People don’t need to jump on diagnosis bandwagons too quickly. But if you’ve noticed that cycle over two or three or four years, then it probably is worth considering something that is a little more than that.”