It’s that time of the year again. The temperature is dropping, and the days are getting shorter. These seasonal changes can cause an individual to be prone to seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
According to Dr. Aziz Nashef, C.Psych, clinical and counselling psychologist at UW, SAD is a subtype of major depression which occurs due to a change in season. It is most common for one to begin to feel the effects of SAD during late fall or the beginning of winter when the days begin to shorten.
SAD is not limited to the fall and winter seasons; it can occur in the spring and summer, but according to Nashef, it is much rarer than the fall/winter pattern.
The symptoms of SAD are similar to symptoms of major depression such as feeling depressed (sad, “blue,” down) most of the day, nearly everyday, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, low energy or motivation, losing interest in activities you once enjoyed, insomnia (difficulty falling asleep), hypersomnia (oversleeping), change in appetite or weight, feelings of sluggishness, having difficulty concentrating, and/or having thoughts of death or suicide.
SAD is different from other types of depression disorders due to it’s seasonal association. “There are three keys to the development of SAD, which are an inherent biological vulnerability to depression, light deprivation in the environment, and increased stress that a person feels they are unable to manage. SAD also appears to be more common among people who live far north or south of the equator, such as in Canada. This may be due to decreased sunlight during the winter and longer days during the summer months,” Nashef said.
He noted, “Although people experience individual differences in the symptoms they manage, core symptoms of SAD that emerge specifically during the fall or winter (in addition to the symptoms noted above) include: tiredness or reduced energy, increased eating, including carbohydrate cravings, which leads to weight gain, hypersensitivity to rejection, problems getting along with people, heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs, and irritability.”
SAD is four times more common among women than men, and more common among people in the age range between 20-40, but can occur at all ages.
Nashef said, “the majority of students fall into the age group that is most susceptible to getting SAD, and so it certainly not only exists on campus, but the likelihood that any given student knows someone personally or has a friend of a friend who has SAD is highly probable.”
SAD cannot be prevented, but it can be managed to prevent the depression from worsening. “If you take steps early on to manage symptoms, you may be able to prevent serious changes in mood, appetite, and energy levels over time,” Nashef said. “Some people find it helpful to begin treatment before symptoms would normally start in the fall or winter, and then continue treatment past the time symptoms would normally go away.”
According to Nashef, early managing activities can include making your environment brighter through natural sunlight, going outside, exercising, following a treatment plan (medications/therapy sessions), resting, developing healthy eating habits, practicing stress management, socializing, or taking a trip to a sunnier location.
Others may find the use of antidepressant treatment useful if SAD symptoms are severe. “An extended-release version of the antidepressant bupropion (Wellbutrin XL) may help prevent depressive episodes in people with a history of SAD. Other antidepressants may commonly be used to treat SAD … Keep in mind that it may take several weeks to notice the full benefits from an antidepressant. In addition, you may have to try different medications before you find one that works well for you and has the fewest side effects,” Nashef said.
Psychotherapy is another treatment option Nashef recommended.
“Psychotherapy can help you identify and change negative thoughts and behaviours that may be making you feel worse” Nashef said.
If one prefers natural treatments, Nashef recommended herbal remedies, vitamin supplements, mind or body techniques like yoga, meditating, acupuncture, massages, etc. “Keep in mind, alternative treatments alone may not be enough to relieve your symptoms,” Nashef said.
Nashef offered a piece of wise advice for those students who are affected by SAD: “SAD is very treatable. Students do not have to suffer in silence. If left untreated, symptoms of SAD usually intensify as the winter goes on, and academics and social functioning become increasingly more negatively affected. This could mean a student may need to take a term off if symptoms are not managed well enough. If you suspect you or someone you know may have SAD, please know that you can go to Health or Counselling Services on campus to get assessed for SAD. It is natural to have some days when you feel down, but you may wish to consult with your family doctor if you feel down for days at a time and you cannot get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy. It is highly recommended to do this, especially if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed or if you turn to alcohol or drugs for comfort or relaxation.”
Nashef advised students feeling hopeless or thinking about death or suicide to seek emergency services at Counselling Services (ext. 31981 or 32655), Campus Police (ext. 22222), or call the Good2Talk post-secondary student helpline (1-866-925-5454) or the Here 24/7 crisis line (1-844-437-3247).