Keep the “winter blues” away this semester

Seasonal affective disorder affects 18% of Canadians, and university students can be hit the hardest

If you experience symptoms of SAD it’s important to talk to a medical professional. PHOTO: Allyson Klassen / The Peak

by Victoria Lopatka, Staff Writer

As the weather gets colder and the days get shorter, some people happily bundle up with a good book or excitedly begin rifling through the basement for decorations — and some brace themselves for the sluggishness and sadness that comes with fall and winter. This feeling has a few different names like “the winter blues” or “seasonal depression,” but the clinical name for it is seasonal affective disorder (SAD). If wintertime in the Lower Mainland makes you feel . . . well, bleh, and you dream of tropical, sunny vacations every year, then read on.


What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons,” most often beginning in late fall, continuing throughout winter, and stopping as the weather gets sunnier in spring and summer. The symptoms of SAD include feeling depressed or “sluggish,” problems with sleeping, and changes in appetites. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, about 18% of Canadians “will experience SAD in their lifetime,” with 15% of those being mild cases. Those most at-risk of experiencing SAD are adults under the age of 50, women, and people who live furthest from the equator. In addition, those with major depression or bipolar disorder, and those with a family history of SAD may be more at-risk.


What causes seasonal affective disorder?

Scientists who study SAD have a few different theories about what causes it. Dr. Alfred Lewy believes it’s because the human body’s circadian rhythm is being disrupted in the wintertime. “The wall clock may tell you it’s time to get up and atem, but your body’s internal clock says you should be resting,” said Lewy.

Other experts, like Dr. Thomas Wehr of the National Institute of Mental Health, suggest SAD is caused by too much melatonin, affecting people’s mood and sleep. Wehr noted people who have SAD “secrete melatonin for longer periods” during the winter. Raymond Lam, a researcher at UBC, suggests there’s a link between the circadian system, serotonin, and SAD. 


University students and SAD

One demographic that can be hit hard by SAD is university and college students. Stress levels are high, sleep is in short supply, and entire days can be spent indoors studying. In addition, COVID-19 restrictions can leave students feeling isolated and stagnant. Experts encourage students to take symptoms of SAD seriously, and make lifestyle changes as soon as possible. This may include creating a regular sleep schedule or implementing strict school-life boundaries.


COVID-19 and SAD

Spending a lot of time indoors can worsen symptoms of SAD — without much exposure to sunlight, a feeling of “eternal winter” is created. Additionally, stress from other areas of life, like school and work, can have a negative effect on those experiencing SAD. Thus, winters during COVID-19 have posed challenges, as people stay indoors more. In an article for Very Well Mind, Dr. Leela R. Magavi said, “This year, individuals may experience SAD symptoms for the first time, or they may experience severe SAD symptoms, which affect their ability to take care of themselves and the people they love.” 


Taking care of yourself this winter

If you think you have SAD it’s best to talk with a mental health professional, who will be able to screen and potentially diagnose you. If that is not an option, these are some alternatives that may help. 

Expose yourself to sunlight 

Light seems to be a key factor in SAD, so getting outside and soaking some natural light up is said to help those who experience SAD, even on cloudy days. 

Get daily exercise 

Experts have noted that all forms of depression have been alleviated by regular exercise — bonus points if you can exercise outdoors, in the sunlight. 

Try light therapy

Light therapy involves using a light box “that emits bright light,” similar to outdoor natural light. It’s best to use your light therapy box in the early morning, shortly after sunrise. Some light boxes have different brightness and warmth settings that can be adjusted for your preferences. 

Invest in a dawn simulator 

A dawn simulator is similar to an alarm clock, “but rather than waking you abruptly with loud music or beeping, they produce light that gradually increases in intensity, just like the sun.” It has been suggested that this simulated sunrise helps users regulate their circadian rhythms and melatonin production, two things that SAD has been related to.

Try aromatherapy 

Dr. Ani Kalayjian, a traumatic stress specialist, suggested essential oils can influence moods, circadian rhythms, sleep, and appetite, all of which can be negatively impacted by SAD. A 2015 study found that poplar tree essential oils “were found to help depressive disorders.”