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Coping With Seasonal Affective Disorder

As we enter February, Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s important that we recognize the mental health struggles many Canadians face every day. Despite a very mild winter across the country – with the exception of a few particularly cold and snowy weeks – many Canadians are facing a familiar foe: seasonal affective disorder. Lasting nearly half the year, this common disorder makes winter feel a little longer for those who must deal with it. 

According to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, happens most often in the fall and winter. The short days and cold weather trigger a chemical change in the brains of many Canadians, which creates symptoms of depression. The shorter days lead to less exposure to sunlight from the fall into winter, which can dramatically affect the moods and mental well-being of many Canadians. 

For many who suffer from SAD, it begins to occur around the same time every year. For many, the effects of SAD can last as much as 40 per cent of the year, the relative time we have less than the ideal amount of sun in a day. 

Sunlight triggers the release of energy-changing hormones in the brain. Exposure to sunlight releases the hormone serotonin, associated with uplifting overall mood and increasing one’s ability to feel calm and focused. Without enough exposure to natural sunlight, your serotonin levels can drop. Low levels of serotonin are associated with a higher risk of experiencing depression. When sunlight enters the specific parts of the retina, the release of serotonin is triggered. Because of this, you’re more likely to experience strings of good days when the sun is out longer and through the day.

The Mayo Clinic reports that the lack of sunlight, which contributes to a less frequent release of serotonin and a greater amount of melatonin, can affect the sleep cycle to such a degree that your internal clock, the circadian rhythm, is noticeably affected. This causes a lack of rest, which only furthers the symptoms of depression.

Exposure to natural daylight can also be tremendously helpful in confronting SAD, particularly exposure to sunlight within the first hour of waking up. Letting light in through all the windows in your house to let natural light in will help, as will frequent walks, as often as possible. Keeping in contact with family and friends and maintaining positive social connections are ways of refreshing one’s mood and pulling oneself out of a slump, while isolation will only worsen the effects of SAD.

According to the Canadian Psychological Association, SAD accounts for 10 per cent of all reported cases of depression. In their lifetime, approximately 15 per cent of Canadians will report at least a mild case of SAD, while 2-3 per cent will report serious cases. Worth noting is not all cases are reported to doctors or mental health care professionals. 

The symptoms of SAD are similar to symptoms of depression. Many people dealing with SAD lose interest in activities which typically bring them joy, and some will become isolated as they may not feel energetic enough to want to see others. People commonly report low levels of energy and feelings of lethargy and tiredness, which doesn’t improve with sleep. 

Another common symptom of SAD is oversleeping, while many report weight gain and frequent consumption of comfort foods like fast food. These coping mechanisms contribute to the worsening of one’s symptoms. Increased feelings of stress, sadness, hopelessness, and guilt about behaviour patterns are common as well. 

For those who cannot manage their symptoms and seem to be dipping deeper into their depression, therapy might be the most viable resource to expend. Another common treatment is called light therapy, wherein a person sits in front of a specialized light box for 30 minutes a day. Light therapy and antidepressants can help those dealing with SAD, but seeking therapy can also help to create a healthy and adaptive schedule of daily activities or hobbies, which can help someone dealing with SAD. Either requires the assistance of a doctor, but light therapy may take place in one’s own home under the advice of a clinician. It is important to know this is not advisable for every person, and a doctor should be consulted beforehand.

Time spent in the sun promotes feelings of well-being and is proven to improve moods. Exposure to UV rays from sunlight causes human skin to produce something called beta-endorphins, which are pain-reducing hormones. 

Risk factors for developing SAD include whether there is a family history of developing SAD or if an individual already has preexisting depression, in which case their depression may worsen. Listed on the Mayo Clinic website as a risk factor are individuals living far off the equator, which all Canadians do.

“SAD appears to be more common among people who live far north or south of the equator. This may be due to decreased sunlight during the winter and longer days during the summer months,” the site reads. 

A low level of vitamin D is also a crucial risk factor for developing SAD, yet another consequence of not getting enough natural sunlight. Vitamin D is also attained through foods and supplements, but natural sunlight is still a crucial element. Vitamin D helps to boost serotonin activity in the brain. 

Living in one of the coldest places in Canada, Dr. Valerie Krysanski, a clinical psychologist working with Shared Health Manitoba, created a list of things to keep in mind in order to avoid succumbing to SAD or, at the very least, to better your chances of keeping a positive state of mind through the cold dark winter. 

By this point, we’ve established getting out into the sun is important, but it can be difficult to want to do in the freezing winters. Nevertheless, it’s what our body needs. Dr. Krysanski also says we ought to move around and get exercise as often as possible. A good way to get two birds with one stone here is to spend an afternoon ice skating at the local rink. Exercise releases endorphins, which help to enhance your overall feeling of well-being.

While staying fit and getting out, be sure to connect with loved ones. Staving off feelings of loneliness is important in the cold months as feelings of isolation typically increase in the colder months. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule is just as important.

While SAD affects thousands of Canadians every year in a diagnosable manner, it is important to note that everyone living through Canadian winters will experience a less-than-ideal amount of natural sunlight. While some individuals are more prone to experiencing SAD, all people experiencing too little direct sunlight will feel the effects, such as worsening moods and a lack of energy. Canadians are particularly at risk of developing SAD symptoms as we have such a decrease in sunlight through the winter months.

While this might sound like a lot, it’s also key to allow ourselves the opportunity to relax. For some, it might be meditation or yoga, while for others, it’s a funny show or a nice book. Whatever your relaxation involves, be sure to partake in all the business of staying healthy through these last couple of frozen months ahead. 

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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