When the days get shorter and winter weather starts creeping in, it has an impact on the mental and physical health of many Canadians. Once known as “the winter blues,” Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of clinical depression that happens when the weather and amount of light per day change. Two to three per cent of Canadians will experience SAD in their lifetime, with another 15 per cent experiencing a milder form that affects mood and focus.
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.
DISCLOSURE: This advice is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a qualified healthcare practitioner. Always seek medical advice that is specific to you and your situation.
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.
“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
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 or 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
If you are having trouble sleeping, MacDonald advises consulting with your doctor to determine why you’re not sleeping and find ways to improve your quality of sleep.
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 happier 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
If fitness centres aren’t an option in your area, try to walk an hour each day or do low-impact exercises. You can break that hour down into smaller chunks, and if you can, include a friend or loved one. MacDonald also noted that you should be present as you’re walking. Take in your surroundings and try to keep your mind from racing.
Once you’ve accomplished your activity goals, don’t forget self-affirmation by acknowledging that you followed through.
Exposure to natural light
It may sound impossible during the dark winter months, but exposure to natural light is vital to countering the effects of SAD. Even if it’s cloudy, you still get the benefits of that natural light coming in through the window, and it elevates your mood.
Plan your day and organize your space
Next, change up your workspace. Move your desk around to change your perspective, or sit somewhere else in your home even for an hour each workday. “The brain likes variety. If you move to a new place, your brain will see things differently and that actually increases your energy,” said MacDonald.
Finally, keep your space organized. MacDonald remarked, “Our brains like order. If we see something not in order, our stress level increases.” The more organized your space is, the easier it is to find things. It helps your mood and gives a sense of satisfaction that you’re in control of your environment.
Carve out time for things that make you happy
“It’s a great way to lift your mood and keep you going throughout the day,” MacDonald highlighted. It’s also a great way to reward yourself for the items you cross off your to-do list.
Think good thoughts
Try journaling or doing a gratitude exercise before bed, highlighting three to five things that you were grateful for each day. She added, “When we train our brain to think of positive instead of negative thoughts, it has a calming effect and we sleep deeper.”
Another option is to work with a therapist on cognitive behavioural therapy. This will help you understand the things we can’t control in life and learn how to react to these things in a way that reduces stress levels.
Be social whenever possible
“We need that separation, to see and experience something other than talking and listening to people on our screens,” she affirmed.
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 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 too.
Talk to someone
Share your feelings with your family, friends and coworkers and ask them how they’re feeling as well. There is strength in acknowledging that something doesn’t feel right, and in truly listening to the people in your life about how the winter is affecting them.
Finally, seek help from a doctor or therapist who can provide you with a safe space to discuss your symptoms and provide you with coping mechanisms to help you through the winter.