Am I Sad or is it SAD?
The winter months can be challenging for many reasons. We live with shorter days and limited sunlight exposure. We tolerate frigid temperatures that make us want to hibernate and can interfere with participating in activities we would otherwise enjoy. There is also holiday stress and pressure, which may be followed by a sense of emptiness when the festivities end. These are probably just a few of the more common contributors to the “winter blues”. However, the onset of mood symptoms at a particular time of year can be important to notice as this, combined with other signs, may indicate the presence of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
SAD is a type of depression that shows up with a recurring seasonal pattern (for at least 2 years for a diagnosis). This means that people with SAD experience the symptoms of Major Depression, along with some that are particularly common to the winter pattern of SAD.
Common symptoms of Major Depression include:
- Feeling depressed most of the day, almost every day
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
- Sleep problems
- Appetite/weight changes
- Difficulty concentrating
- Thoughts of death or suicide
Symptoms of the winter pattern of SAD to be aware of are:
- Low energy
- Excessive sleepiness during the day
- Increased appetite/overeating
- Weight gain
- Craving for carbohydrates
- Withdrawing from social situations
Even if we can’t escape winter, the good news is that there are treatment options that have been shown to be effective for SAD:
- Phototherapy (Light Therapy): Exposure to artificial bright light first thing in the morning is thought to help replace the reduced sunshine in the winter
- Psychotherapy: Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been demonstrated to be effective for depression and has been adapted for use with SAD; a counsellor will work with you to determine a treatment approach that is right for you
- Medications: Talk to your doctor or psychiatrist for more on this alternative
Whether we are coping with SAD or generally feeling down in the wintertime, there are various things we can try to feel better. Some ideas to get you started:
- Connect: reach out to other people, whether it’s to talk about challenges or simply to enjoy the company of others. If this involves leaving your home too, even better!
- Set and stick to a routine (especially for sleep; if you struggle with this, learn about good sleep hygiene).
- Get moving: try different types of physical activity until you find one you like. Exercising indoors at home is a great option; it doesn’t need to be the gym. Notice the impact on your energy level as you stick with it.
- Bring back activities you enjoy, or have previously enjoyed.
- Just do it: many of the things that ultimately help us feel better when our mood is low are initially the last things in the world we want to be doing. If we can push through that and do it anyway (taking small, manageable steps), this can build some momentum and lift your mood for a bit.
Please note that this article is not intended to replace a conversation with your medical or mental health professional. If you have concerns about your mood, seek some individualized professional guidance.