Winter Blues Getting You Down?

As the weather begins to turn and summer has begrudgingly coming to an end we start to plan for the winter months. While putting our shorts and flip flops away and digging out sweaters and scarves we can’t help but feel a change in our overall mood. It happens every year and you can’t quite put your finger on it. Many brush it off as just the winter blues but what most Canadians don’t realize is that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a very real type of depression that relates to the changing of seasons. Most people experience SAD starting in the fall and continuing through the winter months but there are a few that experience it starting in the spring and throughout the summer months.


What are the symptoms of SAD?




What causes SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder has three main causes: 

  1. Melatonin – the body’s melatonin levels are disrupted due to change of season; this is a factor that affects sleep patterns and mood

  2. Serotonin – if the serotonin levels decrease in the human body, commonly caused by reduced sunlight, a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that directly affects mood will have an impact in SAD and can cause depression

  3. Biological clock – also known as circadian rhythm, can get disrupted and trigger depression mainly due to depleted levels of sunlight

There are other risk factors associated with SAD such as family history, living a considerable distance from the equator and having pre-existing depression or bipolar disorder.

If the symptoms of SAD go untreated serious complications may occur including suicidal thoughts/behaviour, substance abuse, school/work problems, social withdrawal or other mental health disorders like anxiety or eating disorders.


What can I do to prevent or reduce symptoms of SAD?

This checklist will come in handy, even if you can only check off one or two items at home or at work, it will still make a difference on how SAD affects your body and mind.


Expand your exposure to daylight at home

  1. Make your home brighter by keeping curtains/blinds open

  2. Use bright colours on furniture and walls

  3. Wake up earlier to soak up as much daylight as possible


Do things you enjoy

  1. Save up some of your vacation time and take a trip somewhere sunny

  2. Participate in activities that make you happy – spend time with family and friends, play games, catch up on books you’ve been meaning to read

  3. Outdoor activities that are enjoyable such as skating, tobogganing, go for a walk/run, etc.


Prepare for Daylight Savings Time change

  1. Gradually get your body used to having to go to bed later and waking up later prior to the time change

  2. Do the same for children’s and pets’ schedules, specifically eating and sleeping

  3. Preparations like these will help the time change have a less jarring effect on you and your family


Light therapy

  1. Consider investing in one of many devices available such as portable light boxes, special light bulbs, and battery-powered visors

  2. Dawn simulators can be extremely beneficial as they turn on before dawn and slowly light up your room to simulate a rising sun

  3. Discuss light therapy with a physician before trying and be cautious when using any electronics that can affect your body’s internal clock


Consider medications

  1. Talk you your physician before trying over the counter or prescriptions medications that will help alleviate your SAD symptoms such as vitamin D or herbal medications to calm or uplift your mood

  2. Avoid alcohol and illegal drugs as these could rapidly and drastically worsen the symptoms of SAD

  3. Continue to take all previous medications as prescribed, don’t skip or delay doses due to SAD symptoms


Create and maintain healthy habits

  1. Ensure your body is getting enough sleep, your diet is well-balanced and you reduce work/personal stress wherever possible

  2. Try to spend a much time outdoors as you did in summer months – this can be challenging during the winter season but trying out winter sports such as skiing or snowboarding will expose your body to light and get you some exercise too

  3. Limit your caffeine intake as this will affect your body more while dealing with SAD symptoms


Be aware of worsening symptoms

  1. If you suffer from depression and SAD symptoms are worsening your depression consult a psychologist immediately

  2. A physician can determine if depression is related to SAD or have another underlying cause

  3. Don’t be quick to dismiss symptoms and hope they will pass – seek help as soon as SAD symptoms becoming overwhelming and begin to affect your day-to-day life


Take a break outside

  1. While at work instead of just sitting inside at lunchtime, bundle up and eat lunch outside

  2. Even a small amount of sunlight and fresh air will boost your mood

  3. Listening to calm music will help uplift you and get you through the rest of the work day


Be honest at the workplace

  1. Inform your superiors that SAD symptoms are affecting your concentration and not to interpret this change as a decline in your quality of work

  2. Ask about flexibility options – consider changing your hours around so you can come in later and get a chance to soak in some natural light before coming to work or start earlier and leave earlier in the afternoon to experience some sun on your way home

  3. If SAD symptoms are heavily affecting your mood, inform your coworkers that social withdrawal and difficulty concentrating are factors cause by this


If your group benefits plan includes an Employee Assistance Program, take advantage of these services and talk to a counsellor about Seasonal Affective Disorder and what you can do to prevent this from having a negative impact on your life and career. Cheer up – summer will be back around before we know it!