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Seasonal affective disorder or the winter blues: Symptoms to watch for— and how to cope on Blue Monday

Many Canadians are feeling the impact of winter weather on their mental health.

Seasonal affective disorder is less common than the winter blues. (Image via Getty Images)
Do you wonder if you have seasonal affective disorder? Here's how to tell. (Image via Getty Images)

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

With winter storms brewing across the country and temperatures dropping to unspeakably low temperatures, many Canadians are longing for the warmer months and sunlight. Although dreaming of an island getaway or long summer days as the snow falls is common, for some people the impact of winter weather can have serious mental health effects.

Since Jan. 15 is known as "Blue Monday," (the most depressing Monday of the year) many people may be wondering if the way they're feeling is fairly common or something more serious. Between seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and the winter blues, the next few months can prove difficult for many of us.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that occurs during the same time each year. For many people living with SAD, the combination of cold temperatures and fewer hours of sunlight during the fall and winter can trigger feelings of hopelessness and despair. However, there is a subsect of people living with SAD who experience symptoms in the summer.

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), approximately 2 to 3 per cent of Canadians will experience SAD in their lifetime.

Dr. Michael Mak, a psychiatrist and sleep medicine specialist at CAMH, says while it's common for people to experience a drop in mood during the winter, it's not the same thing as having SAD.

Sad woman with seasonal affective disorder . (Image via Getty Images)
Approximately 2 to 3 per cent of Canadians will experience seasonal affective disorder. (Image via Getty Images)

"It has to cause some kind of dysfunction in your life," Mak tells Yahoo Canada. "It causes problems in your social life, personal life, work, etc."

Although symptoms usually go away, Mak says it is possible for someone with major depression to experience SAD also.

"There are people who have major depression and have episodes throughout the year, but then there are some proportion of these people that have seasonal depression where symptoms will relapse or get worse in winter months," Mak explains.

What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

Mak says people with SAD will often withdraw from the people and things that usually bring them joy, experience disruptions in their sleep (both sleeping less or more than usual) or poor concentration.

Other symptoms of sad may include:

  • Increased appetite (particularly for food high in carbohydrates)

  • Feeling low energy

  • Weight gain

  • Crying easily or frequently crying

  • Isolation

  • Feeling irritable or easily agitated

In some cases people with SAD may begin hearing or seeing things or have thoughts of self-harm.

"In worse cases, they may feel as though their life isn't worth continuing," he says.

Winter temperatures can contribute to SAD (Image via Getty Images)
Do you have the winter blues or could it be something more serious? (Image via Getty Images)

How do I know if I have seasonal affective disorder or the winter blues?

Since many of us tend to socialize less during the winter in favour of staying cozy at home, it all comes down to what's motivating us to cancel plans or withdraw.

The winter blues is a mild form of SAD that effect approximately 15 per cent of Canadians. Unlike SAD, the winter blues may cause people to feel more lethargic or tired, but they are still able to function and maintain their relationships, friendships and responsibilities at work.

People with the winter blues may feel down from time to time, but there isn't a prolonged sense of depression that causes them to fully cut themselves off from everything they usually enjoy.

How do you deal with SAD and the winter blues?

Aside from flying south for the winter, there are some things people can do to help manage their mood in the winter.

In addition to exercise and spending time outside, Mak says light is one of the easiest things you can do to potentially help boost your mood. For those with mild winter blues, simply turning on the lights in you home can help change the way you feel.

Light therapy, which involves a special light that emits 10,000 lux (a measurement for light intensity), has been proven to aid in winter blues and SAD.

Light therapy for SAD proven to improve mood.  (Image via Getty Images)
Light therapy has been scientifically proven to help with the winter blues and seasonal affective disorder. (Image via Getty Images)

"Expose yourself to that special bright light first thing when you wake up for half-an-hour a day," Mak advises.

If light therapy doesn't work for you or you meet the criteria for more severe forms of SAD, Mak suggests seeking help from a medical professional, who may prescribe medications or psychotherapy.

One thing to remember is that SAD is a real mental health issue and should be taken seriously by family and friends.

If you notice that your loved one may be struggling, their mood has changed or they've become withdrawn, be sure to check on them and offer them support in seeking help.

"If SAD is disabling, it requires treatment," he says.

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