Seasonal depression is approaching— here’s what I wish I knew before to fight these depressive times

The weather is getting colder, the sun doesn’t shine as long, and for many of us our moods are following suit

In high school, I didn’t fully understand what Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) was, nor that it affected me and every aspect of my life: mental health, relationships, and academic performance.

When I was in grade nine, around November when it first started snowing, I noticed that I was having symptoms related to depression — oversleeping, having low energy, moodiness, becoming easily irritated, and often feeling exhausted by doing the smallest tasks.

At that time, I was going through a lot of changes in school and in my personal life. It was easy for me to think that I was just going through a funk that I would eventually outgrow. Which I did, but the “funk” came back the following winter.

This “funk” lasted for about five months, roughly the whole duration of the season, but right as spring came by, I would feel like myself again.

Over the years, I noticed that this “funk” was recurring, and always happened around this time of year. Sure, the warmer seasons didn’t erase all my tiredness and sadness, but nothing felt as depressing as during the winter.

Full disclaimer: I have yet to be diagnosed with SAD by a professional. I’ve been gaslighting myself into believing that these depressive episodes are just the usual “winter blues,” and something normal that everyone experiences. Until I see a doctor and take all the tests, I am only self-diagnosed with SAD.

I only recently started researching and learning more about SAD and how to cope with it. So, what is SAD exactly?

The specific cause for this form of depression remains unclear, although the Mayo Clinic suggests that it is directly related to sunlight which affects several essential factors in our bodies.

The first factor is our circadian rhythm (biological clock). The decrease in sunlight during the winter and fall may disrupt the body’s internal rhythm, and can lead to feeling depressed.

Another potential factor is serotonin levels. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, the key hormone that stabilizes our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness, which may trigger depression.

Finally, the change in season can disrupt the body’s melatonin balance, which affects sleep patterns and mood.

A misconception about SAD is that it only happens in the winter, hence the “winter blues.” However, it doesn’t only occur in the colder months. This form of depression is a lot more complex. The symptoms can be distressing and overwhelming, and can interfere with daily functions.

SAD usually begins in the fall when the days get shorter, and lasts through the winter. Weather affects people’s moods. A sunny day can make us happier and energized, while a rainy day can make us feel gloomy and down. Though these minor mood shifts don’t usually affect people’s ability to cope with daily functions, some may be vulnerable to depression that follows a seasonal pattern.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, about two to three per cent of Canadians will experience SAD in their lifetime. In comparison, 15 per cent will experience a milder form that will leave them slightly depressed, but able to function without any significant symptoms.

Personally, every winter, I experience the same symptoms, but they have worsened over time, which makes me wonder if I have SAD.

SAD symptoms are similar to those of chronic depression. Common symptoms include fatigue, even after having enough sleep, and weight gain associated with overeating and carbohydrate cravings.

As previously mentioned, SAD affects not only my mental health but also my relationships. In previous winters, I would hibernate at home and avoid all sorts of socialization and activities. Any kind of non-essential task became too exhausting. Even doing basic daily tasks like checking up on friends required extra effort. This affected my relationships with those around me, and made me more distant and very lonely.

I’ve also seen it affect my academic performance. I usually perform very well in the fall semester, but I’ve noticed a drastic change in my grades and a lack of motivation during winter semesters.

My SAD has made it hard for me to even get up in the morning without crying. No joke. Only a few days ago, I woke up at 5 a.m., got dressed, sat on my couch and cried about how stressed I was. Then, I left the house to catch the bus, and missed it. Cried even more.

By waking up every morning and seeing how dark it is outside, I instantly feel depressed. The cherry on top: when I take the train going back home at 6 p.m., it’s already pitch-dark, which is very discouraging, and makes me extremely tired.

The transition between the summer and fall seasons has been excruciating. How will I cope with my undiagnosed SAD, and prepare myself for the brutal winter, you may ask?

I will try to be active and spend time outdoors during the day, but most importantly, I’m finally going to see a doctor for a diagnosis, and finally start therapy.

SAD is a form of depression that needs to be treated just like any other mental illness.

SAD is still a stigma around many people, especially students. If you’ve had similar experiences, I encourage you to reach out to a mental health specialist and get the help needed.


Feature graphic by James Fay

Simply Scientific: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Why you might get “SAD” when fall rolls around

It’s that time of year again. It’s 6 p.m., you look outside and it’s already almost pitch black. Before you know it, we’ll have reached the dreaded state of perpetual night: waking up and going to sleep while it’s still dark — inevitably, leaving you feeling miserable.

No, you’re not the only one who feels this way… Unfortunately, many of us are feeling it too.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 15 per cent of Canadians will experience a mild form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) over the course of their life, while two to three per cent deal with more extreme cases of SAD recurringly.

But, what exactly is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

SAD is a mild form of depression that is relative to the changing of the seasons. It is known to alter mood, emotions, and reduce energy. Ultimately, SAD leaves sufferers feeling lethargic, unmotivated, agitated, and having difficulty sleeping. In more severe cases, it can even cause an onset of suicidal thought and behaviours.

Researchers are still not 100 per cent certain what actually causes SAD. Though it is just a theory, researchers believe this is caused by a lack of sunlight. Changes in the light are known to disturb the circadian rhythm, also known as the sleep-wake cycle, which regulates hormones and other bodily functions such as digestion, mood, and body temperature.

Lack of sunlight may also interfere with the normal operation of neurotransmitter functions, which enable the transmission of serotonin (the happy chemical) and dopamine (the pleasure hormone).

However, contrary to what most people might think, SAD doesn’t only occur in the winter. While it is less common, a more mild case of the disorder has been known to affect people starting in the spring and over the summer months.

Despite the symptoms of SAD being almost identical to those of depression, it is important to note that they are not the same. A key characteristic that defines their differences lies in the nature of SAD, which is subjective to the seasons. A person suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder will experience symptoms for one to two seasons of the year (generally, they will have experienced it for more than two years in order to be diagnosed), whereas someone with depression will exhibit symptoms year-round.

Research has shown that people who live north of the equator are more susceptible to SAD, on account of a decrease in sunlight. Because SAD is caused by an environmental change, many doctors recommend exercise, outdoor exposure and — when it’s too cold to go outside during daylight hours — light therapy. Also known as phototherapy, light therapy consists of using a light box to replicate outdoor light.

If and when you start feeling the unbearable weight of winter affecting your physiological well-being, try engaging in endorphin-releasing activities, exposing yourself to the sun for even just a few minutes, and using these self-care methods to help ease the blow.


Feature graphic by @sundaeghost


The winter blues, SAD and self-care

Now that the fall semester is almost over, it’s time to build snowmen, drink hot cocoa, curl up with soft blankets and binge watch every Christmas movie on Netflix. But with the change of the season can come changes in mood, perhaps even seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

While up to 15 per cent of Canadians experience the less severe “winter blues,” according to CBC News, SAD is a form of depression that affects between two and three per cent of Canadians. The disorder has a range of symptoms, including weight gain, irritability, difficulty concentrating, sleeping more, being lethargic even after sleeping and avoiding social situations. On the surface, it can seem like a natural instinct to want to curl up in bed and sleep more during the winter. But, unlike bears, humans shouldn’t want to hibernate for an entire season.

The disorder is caused by a decrease in sunlight, according to CBC News, which can throw off normal routines. Light therapy—either sunlight or a high-intensity light unit—is often used to control the disorder and improve a person’s mood. This can be an effective remedy for the larger part of the population who deal with “winter blues” as well.

Instead of closing the blinds and avoiding what little sunlight there is during the winter, buy high-intensity lights and keep the blinds open to let some natural light in. Sunlight and darkness affect the level of the serotonin hormone in your brain, which boosts your mood and helps you stay calm and focused, according to the Huffington Post. If you avoid sunlight or exposure to light, your serotonin levels can decrease which will increase your chance of developing SAD.

According to the same source, another symptom of SAD is increased carbohydrate cravings. Among the ways to combat SAD or the winter blues before it gets serious is to add an extra serving of complex carbs to your diet—but rather than cupcakes, consider oatmeal, quinoa or potatoes for their nutritional value. Also increase your intake of fruit, vegetables, dark chocolate and fish—all which can help maintain energy levels and battle fatigue.

According to CBC News, 80 per cent of those affected by SAD are women between the ages of 18 and 60. That isn’t to say others aren’t affected by the disorder—and that’s why we at The Concordian hope you check in on your friends and family to see whether they’re just feeling bummed out or if there is something more serious happening.

It’s equally as important to check up on yourself. Around this time of year, it’s common to feel stressed or anxious due to exams and final projects. But if you’re feeling anxious, lonely, isolated or sad during this time of year, talk to your doctor who can refer you to a mental health specialist, or try implementing some of the abovementioned recommendations.

Another important way to fight back against SAD or the winter blues is—you guessed it—exercise. Of course, it’s understandable that the idea of getting out of bed in the winter can seem unappealing, let alone putting on your running shoes and going out in the cold. But, as the Huffington Post explains, exercise releases endorphins which are hormones that help you feel good. They can improve sleep, boost your immune system and help regulate your mood.

While three 30-minute sessions of exercise per week can sound difficult during the months of icy roads and crowded gyms, once you start the routine, it will become easier. We at The Concordian recommend trying out a new winter sport, whether it’s skiing, ice skating or winter cycling. Even if it’s just a walk in the park, the goal is to get outside so your body can absorb vitamin D from the sun.

We at The Concordian hope your winter break is filled with great holiday movies, snowball fights, warm fireplaces and relaxation. Good luck with your final exams, and remember to take care of yourself.

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

Student Life

Don’t let the weather rain on your parade

Graphic by Alessandra McGovern

Cranking the clock one hour forward this past Sunday is a familiar ritual filled with mixed emotions.
While it does mark that spring is around the corner, what you lose in one hour of beloved sleep, you gain in an hour of precious daylight. This fact is one of the many strategies you can put in your arsenal of tricks to help make seasonal affective disorder disappear.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, SAD is a category of clinical depression thought to be triggered by the shortened days between late autumn until spring, resulting in less absorption of daylight. Even though SAD was officially coined as a disorder in the early 1980s, the general public living in northern climates unofficially refer to SAD as the “winter blues.”
However, using SAD and winter blues interchangeably is apparently a misnomer according to CMHA; while it is estimated that two to three per cent of Canadians are affected by SAD, up to 15 per cent of Canucks sing the winter blues, which is a milder form of SAD. Does the medical term “disorder” affect people’s interpretation of this condition or is SAD just a medical theory conspiracy?
Ahmed Abusneneh, 27, a third-year math student, doesn’t think the SAD label adds up to the sum of its parts. “I don’t believe in names, but I think it exists,” Abusneneh said. “We’re meant to live in the daytime, not at nighttime; nighttime is to sleep. So, if we have more time to sleep than to be active, then for sure as a human, you’re going to be depressed if you’re not strong.”
The opposite holds true for fourth-year honours sociology and Judaic studies student Sofia Danna when it comes to linking less sleep to depression. “I don’t necessarily get depressed, but I do know that I feel, when I’m up too late, I just get more negative and if it’s really late, I can still just be brooding,” said Danna. “So, that’s why I feel that maybe if I don’t have seasonal affective disorder, I think that I benefit from getting more sunlight and going outside.”
So what causes us to become hibernating humans during the winter? Heidi Wiedemann, a Montreal psychologist in private practice, explains that we need to see the light.
“The fact that we get that much less daylight has a very depressive effect on a lot of people, and it is like a domino effect; less light, so people go out less often, they exercise less often and all those things combined really change how people’s brains are working, they become more lethargic.” Wiedemann continues to describe how “what you seek, you will find” attitude plays a role in those affected by SAD.
“If you’re joyful and optimistic and feeling up, your brain is primed to look for things in your environment that are cheery, that are positive, that are uplifting,” Wiedemann said. “And the opposite is also true that, if you find yourself in a bit of a slump or the weather changes and you have less light and you’re becoming more lethargic, your brain is then primed to pick up all those things that will also fit that, so it will look for less positive things as reinforcement.”
Picking up on SAD symptoms may not always be as obvious; typically, the symptoms range from anxiety, appetite changes, difficulty concentrating, irritability, tendency to oversleep, reduced energy and increased fatigue. Research has also shown that SAD usually starts the age of 20 and is more prevalent in women than men. While these symptoms can overlap with those of other forms of depression, it is possible to distinguish them.
“The main differentiating factor between depression and SAD would be that with depression, usually there is something that triggers it, like an event or a loss of some sort […] a break-up, losing something of value and there are also certain thinking patterns that just make the depression deeper,” said Anna Cegielka, a West Island psychotherapist who specialises in cognitive behaviour. “With seasonal affective disorder, it just kind of happens out of the blue, all of a sudden for seemingly no good reason, people just start feeling down and lacking energy.”
Feeling the heat of spring fever is tempting when we look at the calendar that says winter will be over in a few weeks; however, the veteran Montrealer knows not to count one’s spring eggs before they hatch, as that surprise last gasp of winter seems to take our breath away come late March or early April. Whether you’ve hit a low note in singing the winter blues, or you’ve reached your breaking point, there are practical, affordable and effective solutions to help you see the light at the end of the SAD tunnel.
“It’s being mindful and aware of yourself, of your moods, your feelings, energy levels and observing and being aware from day to day how things fluctuate,” said Cegielka, suggesting effective mindfulness activities such as meditation, Tai Chi and yoga. “For some individuals, getting full-spectrum light bulbs (special light bulbs that do not filter out UV) provide somewhat of a simulation of daylight.”
Cegielka also mentioned that special lamps, similarly to light therapy, deliver a bigger dose of lighting that may be more helpful for those with increased SAD symptoms.
As for Wiedemann, she provided a three-step approach in addition to increased light to march through March a happy camper.
“My first thing would be take [exercise] outside and get as much sunlight and as much daylight on you as you can; even in my private practice I really shy away from medications,” Wiedemann explained. “There’s too much lately about how all the medications cause changes in the brain that keep you then perpetually stuck in a loop of needing when in fact, [if] you listen to those top three things, take care of yourself nutritionally, that you exercise, and that you get outside into the daylight, […] that’s much more effective than medication.”
Besides filling up on healthy foods with vitamins C, D and omega 3, or dusting off those trainers in the back of your closet (while keeping those winter boots on standby), the most simple and effective strategy you have within yourself is the power to make a positive change.

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