Summer days are officially behind us, and with fall in full-swing, winter is just around the corner. Unlike other seasons, though, winter can be a particularly troubling time of year for many people.

Shorter, darker days can shift one’s mood and mindset, giving rise to mental health challenges that seem non-existent during other seasons. If you or a loved one feel notably down when the temperature drops, know you are not alone: About 15% of Canadians will report a case of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in their lifetimes.

Fortunately, there are ways to combat SAD—also known as Seasonal Depression. To start, it’s important to understand what the condition is, learn how to spot symptoms, and know when to seek help.

What is seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

SAD is a form of depression, which directly coincides with fall or winter weather, and dissipates at the first signs of spring. It’s important to distinguish between SAD and what is known as “winter blues”—which is considerably milder and more common.

Mild mood shifts and feeling lethargic is to be expected at the onset of winter, and isn’t cause for concern. The main difference between winter blues and SAD, is that those experiencing brief bouts of the former are still able to feel joy in life.

Winter blues is in no way a medical diagnosis, it is simply a term used to describe the common feeling of downness during the winter months, as there’s less natural sunlight and minimal outdoor activities—both of which bring people joy. Often, these feelings come in waves, and they generally don’t take away from a person’s overall outlook on life.

Those who suffer from SAD, meanwhile, feel down most of the time, and find it difficult to function normally during the winter months. Unlike winter blues, SAD is a clinical diagnosis, and in severe cases, it can impact a person’s ability to think clearly and cope with daily activities. Typically, SAD symptoms last about four to five months per year, coinciding with the coolest months.

SAD signs and symptoms

SAD symptoms tend to arrive in late fall or early winter. Given that SAD is a type of depression, the signs and symptoms to look out for are relatively aligned. Common symptoms include:

  • Feeling down day after day
  • Disinterest in activities that were previously enjoyed
  • Sleep challenges
  • Low energy and feeling sluggish
  • Increased irritability
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Suicidal ideation

Some SAD-specific symptoms include:

    • Hypersomnia (oversleeping)
    • Binge-eating
    • Social withdrawal (hibernating from the outdoors, and avoiding social situations)

Believe it or not, some people actually experience SAD during the spring or early summer months, with symptoms resolving in the fall—though this form of the condition is far more rare. Those who deal with summer-onset SAD generally face many of the same symptoms, except that rather than gaining weight, loss of appetite is more prevalent, and anxiety is more commonly experienced than depression.

What causes SAD?

Although SAD is a diagnosable condition, the causes that contribute to it are up for debate. There are some factors, though, that scientists strongly believe can trigger it, including:

  • Reduced sunlight: One of the defining features of the winter months is a reduced amount of sunlight each day, which can throw off the body’s internal clock. Reduced sunlight may also impact serotonin levels, which is a chemical in our brains that helps to regulate mood.
  • Changing melatonin levels: The change in season can innately disturb the balance of melatonin in the body, which can lead to shifts in sleep patterns and mood. People with SAD tend to produce too much melatonin.

Who is at risk for developing SAD?

SAD has shown to be considerably more prevalent among women than men, and for obvious reasons, it is experienced more often amongst people who live in cooler climates. Typically, SAD starts in young adulthood, and is more likely to occur in those who have already experienced major depressive episodes or have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Most often, those who experience SAD have other mental health issues, which can range from generalized anxiety to an eating disorder.

Diagnosing SAD

If you feel you might be experiencing SAD, it’s important to seek medical attention from your healthcare provider, who will be able to properly diagnose you and recommend an appropriate treatment protocol.

There are a few basic criteria for diagnosing SAD, which include:

  • Symptoms of major depression
  • Depression during the winter months for at least two consecutive years (though some people do not experience symptoms every year)
  • More frequent depressive episodes during the winter than at other times of the year

How can SAD be treated?

On the bright side, there are several treatments that can be used to combat SAD, including:
  • Light therapy
  • Antidepressant medications
  • Vitamin D supplements
  • Psychotherapy

Since the onset of SAD symptoms is fairly predictable each year, those who tend to experience the condition are recommended to begin the aforementioned treatments during the fall months.

How to treat winter blues

Although those who experience SAD should consult with a professional to determine how best to treat the condition, people facing the winter blues can find many ways to mitigate symptoms without medical intervention.

When it comes to beating the winter blues, there are several key tips that could make a big difference:

  • Get outside: Exposing yourself to as much natural daylight as possible will make a world of a difference. Bundle up, and go for a daily walk.
  • Keep it light: If you struggle to get outside on particularly cold days, ensure your indoor space is filled with light. Sit near a window, and furnish your home with light, neutral tones.
  • Stay active: It can be easy to let your physical fitness fall at the wayside in the winter months, but staying active can be a powerful force to mitigate the winter blues.
  • Eat well: Maintaining a healthy diet is also difficult when the temperature drops, but it’s paramount to feeling mentally and physically strong. Eating a balanced diet is a natural mood-booster.
  • Try a new hobby: Keeping busy and ensuring your spare time is not spent solely on the couch is critical in the cooler months. Find a new hobby that excites you, or try to learn a new skill, which can be very rewarding and inherently mood-boosting.
  • Surround yourself with people: The more social you can be, the better. Surrounding yourself with people who make you feel your best is excellent for mental health, and is a great way to liven your spirits during an otherwise dark time.
  • What makes SAD and winter blues more manageable than other mental health issues is that they’re both highly predictable, making them easier to prevent. If you or a loved one is prone to SAD, the sooner you start addressing it, the better.