Every year, without fail, cold weather and a lack of sunlight makes the winter feel long and miserable. That’s just science: people who are exposed to the sun tend to have higher serotonin levels, which can boost moods and make them feel calm and focused. A lack of sun exposure leads to lower serotonin.
But for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), wintertime can cause depression, low energy and a loss of interest in the things they previously enjoyed. It’s rarely diagnosed formally, but people with SAD generally know how they’re affected, Toronto therapist Bronwyn Singleton told HuffPost Canada.
“A lot of my clients aren’t formally diagnosed, but they know,” she said. “They’re able to say, every winter, ‘This is how I act. This is how I feel.’”
About two to three per cent of Canadians — that’s more than a million people — experience SAD, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. Another 15 per cent have a milder form of the disorder, which doesn’t totally disrupt their lives, but does leave them with some form of depression.
“I don’t diagnose. But there are probably way more forms of depression than most people think,” Singleton said.
It’s a significant problem during a normal year. This winter, we’re approaching one year of living through a global pandemic, which is also exacerbating mental illnesses while depriving us of many of the things that usually help with SAD.
“We don’t have a lot of the structures and routines that keep us on a normal track,” Singleton said. “When you had to get up every day and go to the office, you still had to pull it together and look like a human and have a shower.”
But now “those little interactions that will be missing, I think are going to matter a lot.”
Seeing friends, getting regular exercise and sticking to our regular routines are all somewhere between “harder than usual” and “impossible,” making it tough for people who deal with SAD to deal with the winter.
Treating SAD in a pandemic year may feel like an uphill battle, but it is still possible. Here’s what Singleton recommends for getting through the winter.
Recognize your red flags
If you have SAD, start thinking about how you know something is wrong, so that you can prepare for it.
What are your red flags that let you know you’re feeling depressed? Maybe when you’re depressed you abandon your usual healthy eating habits and just want to eat junk food, or you find yourself cancelling calls with friends. Maybe you find it impossible to concentrate on work and just want to go to sleep all day instead. For some people, Singleton said, it’s just a “felt sense” in their body that something’s wrong.
Recognizing what your own specific depression symptoms look like can help you figure out when you need to get help.
Make a list of things that help
Because this winter brings so many added pressures, Singleton suggests making a really detailed plan of attack for when seasonal depression appears.
List out the things that have helped you deal with SAD in the past. Maybe regular Zoom calls with friends are necessary to make you feel better, or you’ve noticed exercise helps get your mind on track. Maybe you could benefit from taking a day or two off work.
Many things you would normally do aren’t options this year — we can’t see our friends, and many of us don’t have the routine of getting up and going to work anymore. But if routine is necessary for you, start one on your own. Connect with friends on phone calls, or meet them for distanced, outdoor walks if it’s allowed in your area.
Of course, these things aren’t going to make depression go away. But they might make it a little more manageable, while you figure out what’s next.
“Once you take it down one DEFCON level, you can [decide] if you need more help,” Singleton said.
Focus on self-care
“I’m not a medical doctor, but I really tell people to focus on on self-care a lot,” Singleton said. She knows it’s a “boring” suggestion, but self-care tends to slip when people are depressed. Making sure you’re getting the basics — healthy food, lots of water, good sleep, regular exercise — will make a huge impact on your mood.
“It’s important, not just through your body, but as a form of stress reduction,” she said. “When the body functions better, the mind functions better.”
Go to therapy
If you can afford therapy, it’s one of your most effective options when dealing with depression or any other mental health issue. A therapist can help you come up with a personalized plan for seasonal depression, and can help you figure out what it is you need to feel healthier.
If you already have a therapist, tell them about how you’re experiencing SAD, and consider upping your sessions if you or they think it would help. If you have the means and have been considering therapy but haven’t gotten around to making it happen, this is a good time to go for it — most therapists are offering Zoom or phone sessions. Figure out how to get started here.
If therapy is out of your budget, here are some resources that can help.
Talk to your doctor
Whether or not you have a therapist, it’s worthwhile to let your family doctor know what you’re experiencing. (Many people, of course, are reticent to go to a doctor’s office during the pandemic, but most physicians offer virtual appointments online or over the phone.) Your doctor should be able to find out if there’s anything physical causing changes in your mood. They’re also able to prescribe medication, if they think anti-depressants would help.
Get a SAD lamp
If a doctor or therapist has recommended light therapy to treat your depression, consider picking up a SAD lamp. Wirecutter recommends several at a variety of price points.
Experts have said the next few months will be tough on a lot of people’s mental health. But getting through the rest of the winter is crucial — spring and summer will mean longer days, more sunlight, and the ability to socialize outdoors, and summer and fall are when many Canadians can expect to get the vaccine. It can feel very distanced and small in the long, dark winter, but things really will get better.