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How to: Cope With Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

by Candice Walsh Jan 25, 2011
Stuck in the freezing hell of a Newfoundland winter, Candice Walsh explains what Seasonal Affective Disorder is, and how to cope if it strikes.

I despise, loathe, abhor, and detest winter! Yet here I am, in the clutches of a freezing Canadian snow nightmare in Newfoundland. Snow doesn’t settle here all peaceful, like in those cozy winter scenes pictured on Christmas cards. It falls sideways. With rain.

Actually, this winter isn’t as bad as usual, and it’s only just below freezing tonight. Yet I still find myself using every excuse not to leave the house, so I can sit around wearing the same mustard-stained pyjama pants for two days while flipping through Caribbean travel brochures.

I call this the Winter Slump, and rectify the problem by drinking enough beer that I no longer notice the frostbiting pain in my fingers. But some people really do get depressed during the winter.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

There’s still much we don’t know about Seasonal Affective Disorder, but it seems related to how much daylight a person is receiving, and it usually hits people in their 20’s. The elderly aren’t so susceptible, nor are children. This makes perfect sense to me, since I’m no longer allowed to go sledding all day, pausing only for potty breaks and occasionally to eat yellow-free snow. For many of us in the 9-5 realm, every hour of available sunlight must be spent inside the office.

Oddly enough, the exact reasons for SAD are unknown. It’s possible the shorter daylight hours mess with our internal clocks, and geographic location might also be a factor. In other words, if you’re living in parts of the Canadian north which receive 24 hours of darkness at certain times of the year, you’re more likely to develop SAD.

How Do You Know If You’re Suffering SAD?

Everyone’s different, but a few things you should look out for as symptoms of SAD include:

  • excessive eating and sleeping
  • weight gain
  • depression
  • decreased physical activity
  • inability to think clearly
  • sudden cravings for starchy foods and sweets

Since Seasonal Affective Disorder is a bit mysterious, treatments are often varied.

Photo by Gillian

1. Fight Back
The most important thing you can do for yourself is grab SAD by the balls and fight back. Recognize the signs of depression, and don’t let them control you. A good idea for tracking emotions is to keep a mood journal that follows how your mood fluctuates throughout the year.

2. Get Out There
Don’t stay in the house. Visit some friends, run some errands, do some yoga. If you’re confined to the office, take a walk on your lunch break. Perhaps most important: exercise! But always balance this with rest. Some people need more sleep during the winter months, but don’t exceed 10 hours a day.

3. Lighten Up
Get one of those fancy light boxes. Revamp your house to allow more light in, and keep bright, sunny artwork around. Surround yourself with warm colors, like yellow, orange, and red. Burn some nicely scented candles.

4. Be Unconventional
You can also try a number of alternative medical remedies, like St. John’s Wort to improve restful sleep and ease depression. Soothing music eases sadness, so throw on your favorite tunes. Some people even use essential oils as anti-depressants, like jasmine, or try citrus oils that stimulate the autonomic nervous system. Some forms of medicine recommend carrying around a quartz crystal.

5. Don’t Jump Under the Tanning Bed
It’s a common misconception that the ultraviolet radiation will help ease SAD, but in reality, it differs greatly from light therapy. The negative effects far outweigh the benefits. Remember that study proving that tanning is more lethal than arsenic? Yeah, don’t do it.

The Other Side of the SAD Spectrum: Summer Depression

Summer Depression is another type of Seasonal Affective Disorder, and can be either biological or caused by stress. The kids are out of school, money is thrown down on vacations, and your routine is thrown all willy-nilly. Then there’s the whole body image thing. Everyone’s clad in short shorts and tiny bikinis, and it’s not exactly a self-esteem booster.

Summer Depression presents similar symptoms to the winter SAD (though affects more people in the southern hemisphere) and some of the treatment is the same. The most important thing is to address the problem right away. It doesn’t matter if the depression is short-term: in the long run, it could affect relationships, careers, and your health. Getting enough sleep and regular exercise is vital, as is eating properly.

That said, during the summer it’s easy to get carried away with diets and exercise. Many of us have bathing suits to cram ourselves into, and new summer clothing to don. But too much pressure will only make you feel worse. The mission here is to be healthy, not plastic.

Don’t wear yourself out with summer obligations like barbecues and parties and outdoor events, just have fun. The same goes for planning your vacation: book an all-inclusive, and let someone else take care of the details. Make sure it’s somewhere you’re going to love, otherwise you’ll be thinking about all your obligations at home.

Bizarrely, another common symptom of Summer Depression is an increased sex drive. But I’ll let you work that one out on your own.


Have you ever experienced SAD? Do you have any tips to overcome the depression? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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