For Canadians, the upcoming months can bring a lot of joy. The wonder of seeing the first snowfall, the holidays, a time of giving and cheer and outdoor activities make winter a time of enjoyment for some. But for others, the shortened days and lack of sunlight take an extreme toll on their well-being.
Seasonal affective disorder, also known as winter depression or SAD, is a form of depression associated with fall and winter that is caused by the lack of light. People affected by SAD report feeling hopeless, irritable, depressed, low energy, have trouble sleeping and crave starchy, sugary foods.
According to Body and Health Canada, an estimated two to three per cent of Canadians struggle with SAD every winter.
“It’s a feeling of dread of the upcoming season,” said Nick Xidos, a sufferer of SAD. “Dread and helplessness of what’s going to happen. . . The cold, the snow, the lack of sunlight. When I’m working or when I was in school, the only time I’d see the sun was during my morning commute.”
Lynn Robbins, a counsellor at Conestoga College, said that, in a college counselling setting, it’s tough to tell when SAD season really begins.
“We’re in a special kind of situation,” Robbins said. “The stress of startup for school is in September, so we see an influx of it there. And then, with the time change, we do find that there are more people coming in, whether that can be also inflated by the stressors of school and realizing what they’re getting into — it just seems to coincide a little bit.”
“It starts around the beginning of October, when the stress of school starts as well,” said Madison Raslovetzky, someone else who struggles with SAD. “I feel down and it’s a feeling I can’t seem to get rid of. Like I’m uncomfortable all the time and it makes me irritable around other people.”
For Xidos, the feelings start during the final weeks of daylight savings time, when it begins to get darker earlier.
“We also have a lot of students who are previously diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder,” said Robbins. “And they’ve already been consulting with their doctor with that diagnosis and medicated, so they are very aware that that time frame for them is more, incident-wise, with their symptoms getting worse. Till about April, and then we’ll see a lot of people coming in the office and saying, ‘Oh, I got a bunch more sunlight; I feel a lot better,’ “
As far as causes go, the upcoming holidays may also have an impact on depression during the winter season.
“Money is tight, expectations are tight, travelling — all that kind of thing,” said Robbins. “I also know with the international students, it’s also so, because then they don’t get a chance to go home to their families, so there’s a little bit of that as well. But they’re also struggling too because a lot of them come from countries that are very sunlight oriented. So we’re finding an influx of those reporting, definitely impacted by the lack of sunlight here. I mean, you get a little bit, but the sunlight isn’t in direct contact. Even with the sun that we do get, it’s not direct upon us, so we’re not getting the sun nutrients that we’re expecting. The sales for vitamin D and suggestions by doctors of vitamin D are on the rise for all of us during those months.”
Robbins also had tips on how to cope with SAD and general depression during winter, suggesting a kind of lamp designed to imitate daylight, called sunlight lamps. OttLite is a brand that makes these lamps and Conestoga’s counselling services has one in its waiting room.
“If they have a diagnosis, [they should] obviously … stay on the medication and speak to their doctor as prescribed, but also the doctors give us lists of things that they recommend too,” Robbins explained. “We talk about vitamin D, we talk about definitely taking time for themselves. So OttLites, sunlight lamps, those are definitely another thing that can help. Vitamin D, also too, exercise, eating well, getting lots of sleep. Or, enough sleep. Sometimes it can be too much sleep, so I have to be careful with how I say that. It’s a hibernation cycle. So we have to be aware that those definitely are more prone in those winter, dreary type times.”