How winter affects mental health

By: Kianni Reynolds-Lewis
An estimated two to three per cent of Canadians will experience seasonal affective disorder in their lifetime. (Photo by Anthony Tran on Unspalsh)

CW: This article talks about depression and anxiety, and includes mentions of suicide. Reader discretion is advised.

With each passing day, it’s getting darker earlier and becoming considerably colder. This can only mean one thing: Winter is just on the horizon. In places like Edmonton, where it’s practically winter for eight months out of the year, it’s no surprise that many people experience the winter blues. Suppose, though, that your mood is falling faster than the thermometer. In this case, it could be the result of Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD).

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — what’s now called Seasonal Onset Depression — is a form of clinical depression that is much more apparent in the wintertime, according to clinical psychologist and MacEwan associate professor Dr. Sean Rogers.

Dr. Sean Rogers has been a registered clinical and counselling psychologist since 1997. He specializes in children, adoption, attachment, and trauma.

“In the summer, for example, when it’s sunny, your mood is okay,” said Rogers. “And then November, December, January — now you’re feeling depressed. By March, April, May, you’re feeling okay again. If you have a cycle like that, that’s the defining characteristic of SAD. That’s why it was changed to seasonal onset depression; because it starts in the winter and might carry out past that.”

Who does it affect?

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, people with SAD make up about 10 per cent of all depression cases in Canada. An estimated two to three per cent of Canadians will experience it in their lifetime.

“In general, women are at higher risk of developing any kind of depression; so, they’re also at higher risk of developing seasonal affective disorder,” said Rogers. CMHA reports that some research has found women may be up to nine times more likely to be diagnosed than men.

People in more northern countries or cities are also more likely to experience SAD than those who live close to the equator. “People in the North West Territories would be at higher risk than people in Alberta. People in Alberta are at higher risk than people in Montana, and so forth,” said Rogers.

A firsthand experience

Johanna Buehler, a local teacher, has been affected by SAD since she was a teenager. She first learned about the disorder in her second year of university, although wasn’t aware she had it until a few years into her career.

“For me, [SAD] starts around October, when I’m both waking up and going to sleep in darkness,” said Buehler. “The main symptom I experience is exhaustion, not tired or a little sleepy, but full-on bear-hibernating-during-winter exhaustion. I often come home and go straight to bed. No taking off my makeup or washing my face, no making dinner, no saying hi to my roommate or watching TV; in bed and fast asleep as early as 5 or 6 o’clock.”

Buehler doesn’t classify herself as a morning person and has to set five alarms at 10-minute intervals to make sure she wakes up. When she does, Buehler feels like she’s had no more than an hour of sleep when really, she slept through the night and got over 12. She compares getting out of bed to climbing Mount Everest or running a marathon.

“I can’t count how many times I’ve lain in bed on the verge of tears at the thought of having to get up and go about my day as if everything is normal,” she said. “I need to get into work early to prepare resources, but I get in much later than I’m comfortable with during winter months. I also tend to fall behind on marking and planning because I’m not able to work during the evenings on account of me falling asleep once I get home.”

Buehler also experiences low mood, and finds herself upset for no reason and crying unexpectedly. “I don’t find as much joy in things that would normally make me happy,” she said.

Fortunately, Buehler is now more aware of her symptoms. She has developed ways of managing them, like opening up to loved ones, allowing herself to be vulnerable, and asking for help when needed.

What are the symptoms?

In most cases, symptoms of SAD may start mild, becoming more severe as the season progresses. They can include:

  • Feelings of depression (for most of the day, almost every day)
  • Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Low energy
  • Problems sleeping
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless, or guilty
  • Frequent thoughts of death or suicide

It’s important not to diagnose yourself without consulting a doctor as there may be other causes for these symptoms. “As you notice symptoms, part of it is taking steps for self-care,” said Rogers. “If you notice you’re starting to exhibit some symptoms of depression, and suspect it’s SAD, [the] first thing you should do is get outside and exercise. Exercising and being in nature are all protective factors.”

Rogers advises that the goal is to move for 20-30 minutes a day to reduce stress and help our bodies burn energy and calories. “The goal isn’t to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger,” he said. “Walking around the block and enjoying the weather or using an exercise bike at home is enough.”

If symptoms continue or worsen, Rogers advises seeing your doctor. “At the end of the day, most of us know ourselves well enough that if we’re experiencing depression or anxiety to the point where we’re going, ‘I’m kind of worried about this. What’s going on?’ — at that point, it’s a pretty good indication to talk to your doctor,” he said.

How is it treated?

There are numerous treatments for SAD. Rogers says it is most often treated with a combination of medication, anti-depressants, and therapy.

One of SAD’s fundamental factors is the lack of sunlight that reduces the body’s amount of melatonin. “If you live in a climate where you can still get outside and be in the sun during the winter, do that as much as you can,” said Rogers.

However, if you don’t or are looking for an extra boost in times of no sun, there’s also phototherapy or light therapy. “Those are done by full-spectrum lamps you place on your desk or table,” said Rogers. “It’s suggested, for example, that you get up and eat breakfast in front of that light.” Light therapy is something that has substantially helped Buehler.

“I bought a sun lamp on Amazon a few years back,” she said. “It literally brightens up the dreary winter days for me. I find that by the time my last alarm goes off, I am feeling energized and ready to wake up and start the day. I also turn it on when I come home for about 30 minutes to an hour, which helps to revive me and give me a second wind.”

What else can I do?

Like Rogers mentioned, exercise always helps. But also, be sure to reach out and maintain social connections, even if it’s through Zoom calls with friends. “One of the big things we see with COVID is this risk of greater isolation,” said Rogers. “It’s important to have more supportive contact and interactions with the people you’re emotionally close to.”

Rogers also recommends developing an attitude of appreciation for winter. “Look out your window on a nice, sunny winter day,” he said. “Look at how everything is blanketed in snow, the frost on the tress. Even if you don’t want to go outside because it’s -40 C, you can still appreciate it through your living room window.”

If you or someone you know struggle with mental health, you can reach out to CMHA’s Online Crisis Chat or call their distress line at 780-482-HELP (4357). You can also call 211 for information on and referrals to social, health, and government services.

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