Seasonal Affective Disorder: Warning Signs and What To Do About It

Seasonal affective disorder and the winter blues are very real. Many people find themselves experiencing a lower overall mood during the winter months.

Frosted window shields, 4 p.m. sunsets, unresolved resolutions and an emptier bank account after the holidays. It’s no wonder that Blue Monday – the so-called saddest day of the year – falls in the month of January. Even if Blue Monday is a myth, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and the winter blues are very real. With darker days and a colder climate, many people find themselves experiencing a lower overall mood during the winter months.

About 3-5% of North Americans will experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – a type of depression that corresponds to changes in the seasons, most often in winter – in their lifetime. Another 15% will experience a milder form of seasonal blues that include depressed mood and lowered energy but result in less life disruption.

While the causes of SAD aren’t fully known, it appears to be triggered by changes in sunlight. These changes can disrupt neurotransmitter release (particularly of serotonin, melatonin and dopamine) and alter sleep patterns, leading to symptoms that look like major depression. 

“One of the things that’s definitely a sign of SAD is low mood and low energy,” says Kate Koei, a Certified Counsellor on the Inkblot platform. “Other signs include having problems with sleep, feeling depressed when you’re not ordinarily depressed or changes in appetite – whether you’re undereating or overeating. Sometimes it can even get as severe as having suicidal ideation.” 

6 ways to cope with seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Since SAD can lead to worsened episodes of depression if left untreated over time, we spoke with Koei and Oi-Wah Whitbourne, another counsellor on the Inkblot platform, about how to cope with the disorder if you find yourself experiencing symptoms over the coming months. 

1. Keep A Routine

With days getting darker faster, it can be easy to want to hibernate and skip the usual activities that might bring you joy. But not keeping up with your favourite hobbies, or sleeping in late, can create a feedback loop of negativity and further disrupt your overall mood. “Changes in sunlight interrupt your internal body clock, throwing off your usual rhythms,” says Koei. “That’s why creating routine is so important. Try to maintain at least a general routine whether it’s with regards to the time that you wake up and go to sleep or the time you have your meals.” 

2. Maintain Social Connection

As the weather gets colder, many people may find themselves wanting to retreat indoors and avoid social activity. Yet having social support and a sense of belonging is essential to overall wellness. “One of my clients experienced SAD. She was a hairdresser and found that even talking to her clients helped her realize she wasn’t so isolated and alone,” says Whitbourne. In order to stay connected during COVID-19, try talking with friends over Zoom, going for walks, joining online interest groups or experimenting with new creative activities with friends online:  “I’ve attended a dance party online which was really exciting. You can do exercise groups, watch movies or share commentary,” says Koei. “In a different time, there were lots of things in different places that I wouldn’t have been able to go to but since everything is now online, you can go to events all over the place.” 

3. Move Your Body

Exercise is one of nature’s best mood boosters, releasing endorphins, improving overall energy and stimulating the release of feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin. Even running just 15 minutes a day or doing an hour of low-impact exercise can aid in keeping depression at bay. Koei suggests taking your activity outside or near a window for the added benefit of getting some natural sunlight. “Have some exercise and heavier routines,” she says.” You can stroll or even use a treadmill in the winter.” 

4. Phototherapy

Using a light therapy lamp can be an effective way to treat SAD. With SAD, the absence of natural sunlight in the winter is what causes our serotonin levels to drop, depleting our supply of this natural “happiness chemical.” Light therapy lamps work by mimicking outdoor sunlight, which encourages your brain to reduce its production of melatonin (the sleepy hormone) and increase its production of serotonin.  “Essentially you fool your brain into thinking you’re taking in more sunlight and this leads to improved sleep cycles and mood,” says Whitbourne. 

If you can’t afford a sun lamp, Koei suggests rearranging your apartment so as to maximize the amount of sunlight that enters your living space. ”Be conscious of the lighting in your house. Open the blinds. Choose lights that have a daytime feel,” she says. “I like to have options for people that don’t cost any money.”

5. Optimize Your Diet

Reduced exposure to sunlight can cause decreased levels of serotonin due to Vitamin D deficiency, a vitamin that aids in its production. While there is no way to add serotonin through diet, Inkblot Nurse Practitioner Karma Stanley suggests eating foods that boost serotonin production and facilitate serotonin uptake: “An example of a serotonin boosting foods are those that contain tryptophan, an essential amino acid thataidswith theproductionof serotonin. Good sources of tryptophan can be found in oily fish, such as salmon, eggs, spinach, nuts, and poultry.  Optimizing Vitamin D levels can also help spur the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin; high levels of Vitamin D can be found in food sources such as wild caught salmon, oily fish such as mackerel, halibut and canned sardines.”  

6. Seek Professional Help

While it’s normal to experience lowered mood in the winter months, it’s important to know when to get professional help. In some instances, antidepressants or extended talk therapy may be a necessary part of treatment. “Keep a journal and keep track of your feelings,” says Koei. “If you find yourself experiencing these symptoms over a prolonged period of time, I think it’s worth seeking support just to see if there are any other issues. That could be a sign that there are underlying mental health issues such as major depression or anxiety.” 

Reach out to the counsellors at Inkblot Therapy to help if you find yourself experiencing the warning signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Remember – you are not alone. Inkblot can help. It’s easy to make an appointment with a therapist tailored to your individual needs and sessions are available as soon as today.

Kate Koei

Kate Koei is a Certified Canadian Counsellor (CCC) in Calgary helping individuals, couples and families understand and work through challenges that diminish their wellbeing. She has worked with a broad range of issues including anxiety and depression, chronic pain, grief & loss, relationship issues including survivors of abusive relationships, dependency, parent-child relationships, and trauma. Her approaches include CBT, Person-Centered Therapy, DBT, Narrative Therapy, Transactional Analysis, Psychodynamic Therapy, Solution Focused Therapy, Stages of Change by Prochaska and DiClemente model, Psychoeducation, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy. Koei’s Inkblot direct referral code is: GKHBCPHA.

Oi-wah Whitbourne

Oi-wah Whitbourne has been a counselling therapist since 2002. She takes a faith-based approach to working with clients. She has used Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for a number of years and since 2014 found Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) very helpful in validating people's experiences and getting their attachment needs met. Whitbourne works mostly with women in individual counselling and couples in family counselling. Her Inkblot direct referral code is: FQVJYUVI.