At this time of year, it's 15°C and sunny one day, and then next day, you've got two inches of snow and your car door is frozen shut. Mother Nature can't quite make up her mind right now, but many of us have—winter is getting old. If your mental health has taken a hit, you're not alone.
The winter blues are very common, with many of us experiencing a mood shift during the colder, darker days of winter. Towards the end of winter just about everyone is sick of the weather, but this feeling can be quite disabling for those suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The main culprit of both the winter blues and SAD is the lower level of natural sunlight we're exposed to in the fall and winter.
SAD is more complicated than wanting to hunker down and stay in for the night. It's more than simply cursing another blizzard and it's more than longing for spring and sunshine.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), 2-3% of Canadians will experience SAD in their lifetime. Another 15% will experience a milder form of SAD that leaves them feeling only slightly depressed, but still able to live their life without major disruptions. The Yale School of Medicine states "the symptoms of SAD usually begin to appear gradually throughout September and October and last through March or April." This means that SAD can consume more than half of the year!
Medical professionals generally advocate the following treatment options, and if you think you might be suffering SAD, it's important to talk to your doctor directly to make sure there aren't underlying medical issues.
Sunlight: Try to get outside whenever the sun is shining during these darker days. Take a walk during your lunch break, play with your kids in the snow or try an outdoor winter activity like snowshoeing, skiing or ice-skating. Exposing yourself to natural light will help boost serotonin production and your overall mood.
Light therapy: The current standard treatment for SAD, light therapy replicates natural light with light boxes. Light therapy can be particularly helpful in regulating the release of melatonin, which increases when the sun goes down. When undergoing light therapy, you will spend a prescribed amount of time looking at the light box each day. It's important to consult with a doctor on the appropriate "dose" as this will ensure effective treatment while also lowering your risk for side effects (e.g., agitation and headaches).
Exercise: Research consistently shows a strong connection between mental health and exercise. Exercise can increase serotonin and endorphins, which are mood regulating hormones. Aim for at least 30 minutes most days of the week.
Other self-care tips to help brighten winter days include:
Try to arrange the spaces you spend time in to maximize sunlight exposure
Keep curtains open during the day
When all else fails, try a winter vacation in sunny climates—if the pocketbook and work schedule allow. Keep in mind that the symptoms will recur after you return home
Try to resist the carbohydrate and sleep cravings that come with SAD
We hope these tips help carry you through to brighter days which are mere weeks away!