Winter blues or something worse?
Emily Kirsch, Staff Writer
Winter is here, and although the season has plenty of fun opportunities and exciting forthcomings, not everyone finds the cold months enjoyable. Many people notice a change in their mood and energy level this time of year; however, this shouldn’t be always dismissed as that yearly feeling of the “winter blues.” In fact, this can be a type of mood disorder known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Commonly referred to as seasonal depression, SAD refers to depression triggered by the change of seasons. SAD is most commonly seen in the late fall to early winter but can even be experienced in early spring. SAD shares many symptoms with major depression, such as sadness, lack of energy, loss of interest in usual activities, oversleeping and weight gain. Researchers think that SAD is caused by changes in the level of exposure to sunlight. Patti Paccagnan, a mental health nurse here at Mount Royal University (MRU), explains that changes in light may upset a person’s biological clock. This controls sleep-wake patterns and can disrupt our neurotransmitter functions.
SAD also has higher risks for different people. “Young people are more likely to develop SAD, though the risk decreases with age,” Paccagnan says.
She explains that symptoms can linger most of the day and last for more than two weeks, impairing a person’s performance at work, school or social relationships. SAD can cause withdrawal from family members and friends and loss of interest in work and hobbies. It can leave someone feeling irritable, tired and agitated. Severe cases can develop into a loss in one’s sense of reality. Symptoms can even lead to thoughts of suicide—which should always be taken seriously.
In speaking with Paccagnan, she explains that only two to three per cent of Canadians will experience SAD in their lifetime. Another 15 per cent will experience a milder form of SAD that leaves them only slightly depressed but still be able to live without significant disruptions. People with Seasonal Affective Disorder make up about 10 per cent of all depression cases. Though any form of mental illness should be a cause of concern.
In the case that someone isn’t sure if they have SAD or not, Paccagnan suggests tracking their mood or looking back at previous seasons and years to notice if mood change coincides with the change in season.
Outside of decreased light exposure, are there any life stressors contributing to a depressed mood? Are there any underlying medical conditions that might contribute, like thyroid or iron problems?
If it seems like it is truly a case of SAD, do not give up hope, as there are effective treatment options for it. Many people experience this and all symptoms are valid. There are many ways to address this disorder.
For starters, many people who have SAD are helped by exposure to bright artificial light—also known as light therapy. Although too much light can have minor side effects like nausea, headaches or eye strain, it can be one of the most effortless and effective ways to combat SAD.
The mental health nurses at MRU recommended a triad approach to managing depression symptoms. This means practicing good self-care, getting psychotherapy or counselling and connecting with a family doctor simultaneously. Good self-care and developing a solid support system can help you maintain a healthy mentality.
Taking steps early to manage symptoms can stop them from worsening over time. Some people find it helpful to begin treatment before symptoms, typically in the fall or winter, and then continue treatment past the time symptoms usually go away. Other people need continuous treatment to prevent symptoms from returning.
Overall, in dealing with any mental health issue or mood disorder, becoming aware of how you are feeling and how you can get better is very valuable. Taking a proactive approach to acknowledging your symptoms and finding different resources for help can jumpstart the journey to better mental well-being.