S.A.D. Season

Suffering through the winter blues with Seasonal Affective Disorder

As the seasons change and the days get shorter, many people across Canada begin experiencing a phenomenon that leaves them wondering, “why do I feel so low?” Nothing significant has changed for them in their lives, but there is a noticeable transformation in their affect and level of energy.  With leaves changing and pumpkin spice lattes around every corner, many Canadians of all ages experience this transformation and for many, it’s leaving them wondering, why is everyone so S.A.D.?

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or S.A.D. as it is commonly known, is an illness that affects many individuals every year over the fall and winter months. It is also known as “The Winter Blues”, named due to the temperate climate and the stark change that is felt by the body.  The symptoms typically last through the winter, as sufferers have a difficult time adjusting to the shortage of sunlight in the winter months. Symptoms start to improve in the spring as the days begin to get longer. The illness will typically return the following year around the same time.

S.A.D. symptoms are nothing new to society; low mood during winter months has been recorded as far back as 1845; however, it was not formally recognised as a disorder until the 1980s. Today it is classified as a variant of depression, identified by depressive episodes that recur annually, typically around the same time each year as fall moves into winter.  Although symptoms are reported to be generally mild to moderate and impacting around 25% of the population, a lesser number of individuals, 5%, will experience much more severe symptoms, sometimes so disruptive that those afflicted require hospitalization.

S.A.D. is thought to be triggered by a lack of sunlight that causes a reduction in serotonin production, and an increase in production of melatonin, which causes sleepiness, producing the symptoms associated with S.A.D.  In Canada, because the fall and winter seasons can be long and dark, those impacted by S.A.D. can spend over 40% of the year struggling to manage their symptoms.

What are the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Individuals notice changes in mood, possible fluctuation in weight, appetite, decreased energy, fatigue, and sleep issues; all symptoms often related to depression. Individuals can also notice more psychological and emotion-based symptoms such as increased sadness, irritability, anxiety and lack of concentration. Cravings for carbohydrates are also associated with the illness.

These symptoms can lead to some challenging issues; with the internal clock struggling to adjust, individuals find themselves challenged to stay awake throughout the day; students find themselves nodding off in class while sitting at their desks. The lack of substantial sleep at night can eventually lead to oversleeping, which can result in napping irregularly during the day and finding themselves exhausted all the time.

The symptoms of S.A.D. can also weaken the immune system which makes individuals prone to colds and sickness, and can even increase premenstrual symptoms in girls and women, further impacting the physical health of those afflicted.

What is the treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder?

  • Although there is no sure way to prevent the onset of S.A.D., there are a several very effective strategies that can help lessen the impact and manage the symptoms throughout the long winter months:
  • Arrange home and classroom environments to maximize exposure to direct sunlight.
  • Engage in activities indoor that require movement such as a class project to keep the body moving and as invigorated as possible.
  • Socialize – Canadians have a tendency to hibernate rather than fight the cold in the winter, and understandably so. However, the behavior lends itself to isolation, which fuels the symptoms of S.A.D.
  • Exercise indoors and outdoors as much as possible. An idle body is an unmotivated body.
  • Where possible and when temperature permits, take walks outdoors between 10am – 2pm to maximize natural sunlight exposure.
  • Try light treatment therapy by a UV lamp to combat the symptoms of S.A.D.  Light therapy, when administered properly and regularly, has been noted as most effective, and reports higher energy levels in individuals.
  • Consider vitamin supplements such as vitamin D, and other immune boosting supplements that our bodies lack in the winter months.

Are youth more vulnerable to the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Research indicates that young people in the onset of teen years are at the highest risk of developing S.A.D. Women are second to adolescents, and the risk is thought to decrease with age. Canadian students that live in Northern areas are at the highest exposure, where sunlight is often absent throughout long periods of the year. 

Family history and genetics can play a role in the susceptibility of S.A.D., therefore it’s helpful for students to know if anyone in the family has experience with managing the symptoms of S.A.D., and what has been most successful.

School staff can be on alert for symptoms of S.A.D. in students where they notice impactful changes; they may notice emotional symptoms like sadness, low mood, fatigue and lack of ability to engage or participate. This can impact not only on the academic level, but at the social level as well. Struggling students may appear to isolate themselves, as well as seem sad, detached and withdrawn. Motivation to engage and participate tends to drop, particularly from December to February.

Psycho-education is the best tool available to lessen the impact of S.A.D. We cannot alter its onset — Canadian winters are unlikely to change. Therefore, educating students and communities about S.A.D., and providing resources and tools to combat the symptoms is the first and most important line of defense. For students that experience heavier and prolonged symptoms of S.A.D., psychotherapy may be an option to provide; talk-therapy can help youth find the right words and feelings associated with their own symptoms, and give them a more effective way to communicate their experience. This can help avoid misdiagnoses or assumptions, and potential unnecessary interventions. It can also help normalize this illness and work to combat stigma around mental health in the classroom and in our communities.

By: Zara Canteenwalla, MSW, RSW, CCC

CAMH SAD 2019: https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/seasonal-affective-disorder
Kids Health 2019: https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/sad.html
Light Therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder: A Review of Efficacy. Terman, Michael et al. Neuropsychopharmacology 1989 Vol 2, No. 1.

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