Signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder You Might Be Ignoring

Is your case of the "winter blues" interfering with daily life? Toronto-based clinical health psychologist Deanne Simms reveals the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) to watch out for.

Reader’s Digest Canada: January always inspires talk about seasonal affective disorder. But what exactly is SAD?

Deanne Simms: It’s a kind of depression that is brought about by the changing of the seasons, most commonly the switch from long summer days to shorter, darker ones. About 15 per cent of Canadians will experience mild SAD in their lifetime, while two to three per cent will deal with more serious cases. Symptoms include feeling sluggish or low most of the day, and a reduced interest in activities they once enjoyed. Other signs of seasonal affective disorder are changes to appetite—often eating more and craving carbohydrates—and oversleeping.

Sluggishness and sleeping a lot probably describes many Canadians at this time of year.

That’s true, but there are differences between the more typical “winter blues” and SAD. When the symptoms I described start to interfere with a person’s daily life, that’s when I view it as a clinical diagnosis. For instance, a person experiencing SAD might tell me they feel irritable and more sensitive in their relationships with others, causing them to withdraw socially. Severity is another marker. SAD is a type of depression and can become very serious up to and including suicidal thoughts—and sufferers are usually distressed that they can’t get rid of the symptoms. For many of us experiencing a lower mood, we might reach out to friends or do something that brings us joy—but a person who’s depressed often lacks the ability to do that.

What’s happening in the brain when someone experiences SAD?

We still have a lot of questions, but what we know is that people with the condition have a disrupted circadian rhythm—your body’s mechanism for regulating your sleep/wake cycle—and that may be partly related to less sunlight. Sometimes SAD also comes with abnormalities in the way our brains produce or transmit chemicals like dopamine (which is associated with happiness) and serotonin (which regulates mood)—which may also relate to a lack of sunlight.

Canada has dark winters. Do we also have more cases of SAD?

Yes, and rates do vary according to latitude, so places that are further from the equator tend to have more occurrences of the condition.

So could you treat SAD by booking a trip to a sunny locale in the winter?

I like where you’re going with that—and if I could prescribe a trip down south, I would love to. Theoretically, going to a place where you’re exposed to more sunlight and a change in scenery could be effective, at least in the short term—but again, it’s important to remember that depression can take the enjoyment out of things a person would normally find fun.

What kinds of treatments have you found to be effective?

Light therapy, where you sit in front of a special lamp for 30 minutes a day every morning, can positively impact brain chemicals tied to mood and sleep—and so ease symptoms. In my practice, I’ve also found success with cognitive behavioural therapy, where I help clients create a better sleep schedule and to notice and shift unhelpful thoughts tied to SAD. The goal is to fight back against the urge to “hibernate” in the winter and to instead structure their lives and activities to increase their physical activity and social connection.

Now that you know the signs of seasonal affective disorder, check out the health benefits of light therapy (beyond treating SAD).

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada