Mental health challenges during winter

Do you find yourself feeling a little down in the winter months? You could be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

SAD is a mental illness that can have significant effects on mood and motivation.

Symptoms of SAD may be different for each individual. However, most frequently, individuals experience irritability, low energy, social withdrawal, oversleeping, carbohydrate craving and weight gain.

SAD is a form of depression that occurs with the changing of seasons. While it can occur at any time of the year, it is most common during the winter among individuals who live far from the equator.

Scientists believe this is due to people’s decreased exposure to sunlight during the shorter, darker winter days. The reduction in sunlight triggers the onset of SAD, leading to a disruption in one’s biological clock and a drop in serotonin and melatonin levels.

Many people use seasonal lights to combat the Winter blues. Louis Sobol/Argosy

SAD is most frequently diagnosed in young adults and is eight times more common in women than in men. Someone diagnosed with clinical depression or with a family history of SAD has an increased risk of experiencing SAD.

Approximately two to six per cent of Canadians will experience SAD in their lifetime, with an additional 15 per cent having milder symptoms, sometimes known as the “winter blues.”

Fourth-year science student Cat Bannon, who experiences SAD annually, talked about her experience after she was diagnosed in her second year.

“I was quickly diagnosed with [SAD], but was told that since it had been going on for so long, it had also developed into clinical depression. I was prescribed antidepressants to be taken during the winter months, as well as vitamin D.”

Health professionals can diagnose SAD through physical and psychological evaluations. SAD can be medically treated through light therapy, antidepressant medication, or talk therapy.

The risk of experiencing symptoms of SAD can be lessened by a few lifestyle choices. Making an effort to get some exposure to sunlight is crucial. Create a sunny environment for yourself in your home and work/study space. When possible, soaking up some sun in the first two hours after waking up is beneficial. Regular exercise is also important for relieving stress and anxiety and for improving overall mood.

When dealing with SAD, it is important to manage stress effectively, take time to do what you enjoy and spend time socializing. Seasonal lights are available on campus and can be accessed for a free trial by simply contacting the Wellness Centre. Overall, the best way to cope with SAD is to be aware of it, follow a treatment plan and practise self-care.

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