The beginning of fall marks the time of the year that a significant number of people begin to notice notable shifts in their mood, energy, and overall well-being. These changes can have serious impacts on their day-to-day activities as well as their ability to engage with the people and responsibilities that are most important to them. This withdrawn behaviour is actually quite a common reaction to adjusting to this darker, colder time of year which many of us refer to as “the winter blues”, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
What exactly is SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that occurs around the same gloomy time each year, typically kicking off in September or October. The onset usually begins in the fall or winter and subsides around the springtime, lasting on average for 4 to 5 months. Some people also experience depressive episodes that begin and end in the spring and summer, but this type of SAD is much less common. An estimated 2-3% of the general population also suffers from autumnal or wintertime SAD, with many of these individuals unaware that they’re even suffering from this condition.
The signs and symptoms of SAD are relatively identical to those of major depressive disorder (MDD). However, with SAD, these signs and symptoms appear and disappear at about the same time each year.
Symptoms of SAD may include:
- Feeling down or sad most of the day, every day
- Gloomy outlook on life
- Feeling hopeless, worthless, and irritable
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
- Low energy
- Difficulty sleeping, or oversleeping
- Carbohydrate cravings and weight gain
- Frequent thoughts of death or suicide
Risk factors for developing SAD:
- Women are more likely to be diagnosed with SAD than men
- SAD is more common in people who live either far north or far south of the equator
- Young adults are more likely to develop SAD than older people; the risk decreases with age, particularly after age 50
- A family history of SAD or other forms of depression increases risk
Can you treat SAD?
While scientists don’t fully understand exactly what causes SAD, there are treatments available that can help ease its effects for many people, available in four main categories that may be used alone or in combination:
- Light therapy
- Antidepressant medication
- Vitamin D
If you think you are suffering from SAD or are interested in learning more about these treatments, talk to your family doctor who will be able to assess what is safe and best for you or contact Dialogue.
How to prevent SAD
Regular exercise, a healthy diet, good sleep habits, staying connected to others, balanced thinking techniques, and managing stress have all been shown to reduce the symptoms of depression. There are also a number of proactive strategies that can help mitigate or prevent the onset of specific SAD symptoms, including:
- Spend more time outdoors during the day (soak up that vitamin D!)
- Arrange the spaces you spend time in to maximize sunlight exposure
- Keep curtains open during the day
- Install skylights and add lamps
- Build physical activity into your lifestyle, preferably before SAD symptoms take hold – Physical activity relieves stress, builds energy and increases both your physical and mental well-being and resilience
- Make a habit of taking a daily walk while the sun is out, particularly if you commute to school or work during the dark hours of the day
Where to go from here
SAD can affect anyone, but there are ways to prevent and treat it. If you’re a Dialogue member, open up your Dialogue app now to start a questionnaire and assess your symptoms.