When the days get shorter and winter weather starts creeping in, it has an effect on the mental and physical health of many Canadians. Once known as “the winter blues,” Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a form of clinical depression that happens when the weather and amount of light per day change. Five to six percent of Canadians will experience SAD in their lifetime, with another 15 per cent experiencing a milder form that affects mood and focus.
2020 has already been a challenging year, and those who are affected by SAD, including myself, are about to face an uncertain winter where our routines have already been disrupted and some coping mechanisms aren’t an option. To help us prepare for the months ahead, I spoke with Ann Marie MacDonald, Executive Director and CEO of the Hope and Me Mood Disorders Association of Ontario. She broke down the symptoms of SAD and the people who are most at risk and provided us with 10 tips to get through the season.
Understanding SAD and its symptoms
Symptoms to look out for include:
- Sleeping 2 - 4 more hours per day.
- Low energy or lethargy.
- Carb cravings.
- Withdrawing from social contact.
- Signs of depression over two or more consecutive winters, but not depressed in spring and summer months.
Tip 1: Light Therapy
Light therapy used to be an expensive treatment for SAD, but thanks to advances in technology, you can buy an affordable device to place on your desk or table. “The recommended daily treatment is 15 to 30 minutes in front of the device,” says MacDonald. That will give you the exposure to bright light that you need to get you through the darker months. MacDonald added that you should purchase an approved device and not try a homemade solution that could damage your eyes.
Hydrate and eat a balanced diet
When the weather is cooler, you may not be as inclined to drink a lot of water, but being hydrated maintains your energy. If you don’t enjoy water, MacDonald recommends adding fresh fruit like strawberries, grapes, or peaches to the bottom of a jug to add flavour and natural sweetness. When deciding on what to eat, go for proteins, simple, unrefined carbs like non-starchy vegetables and legumes, and foods rich in Vitamins B and D to increase your energy. Avoid fatty foods and starchy carbs like pasta and potatoes because they cause your blood sugar to rapidly rise and then crash, which affects your mood. Also, avoid alcohol because it worsens the symptoms of SAD.
Keep to a sleep schedule
This is an area that I’ve struggled with for years, and the key for me was not trying to force myself to go to bed early. I would toss and turn, and wake up exhausted and stressed the next day. I’m far more productive and happy when I head to bed around 1am and wake up by 9am. It’s different for everyone, so listen to your body and its natural rhythms.
Stay or get active
Exposure to natural light
Plan your day and organize your space
Carve out time for things that make you happy
Think good thoughts
Be social whenever possible
She also punctuated that you shouldn’t feel guilty if you don’t want to talk with family and friends every day. On some days, give yourself permission to declare that you can’t take any more human contact and that you need time for yourself.
Once you’ve taken the time to decompress from the workday or week and want to socialize, try something like a movie night or game night with friends online to keep those human connections. I take part in a monthly music trivia night that not only allows me to socialize with friends, it gives me something to look forward to in a year where travel, concerts, and other outings that get me through the winter are off the table.