What is Seasonal Depression & 7 Steps to Push Through

Winter is here and you may have noticed a change in your mood, a big drop in your energy levels, and maybe some difficulty concentrating. You may be sleeping or eating more than usual and not quite feeling like being social. Sound familiar? It could be due to a recent election that took place nearby (I will say no more than this) or it could be seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or seasonal depression, is more than just the winter blues. The national institutes of mental health explains that this type of depression comes and goes with the seasons and occurs yearly. It typically begins in the late fall/early winter and tends to go away during the spring/summer (1). About 2 to 6% of Canadians will experience seasonal depression in their lifetime with another 15% experiencing a milder form (2).

Experts suggest that changes in the amount of light available between seasons triggers seasonal depression (3). Other factors may also play a role, for example, your place of residence may influence how likely you are to experience seasonal depression. Living in urban areas has been associated with a higher likelihood of experiencing mood disorders (4). Your gender may also play a role as women experience a higher prevalence of seasonal depression than men (5, 6, 7).

Taking On The Canadian Winter

What can you do if you are experiencing symptoms of seasonal depression aside from escaping to a sunnier location?  If you are experiencing severe symptoms like excessive irritability, difficulties in your interpersonal relationships, oversleeping, extreme tiredness, or thoughts of suicide, professional help is highly encouraged. If your symptoms are less severe, some of the following strategies recommended by professionals will help you to cope until the longer, brighter days of spring arrive.

Here are some tips to overcome seasonal depression from some of our therapists at the Montreal Therapy Centre:

1. Maximize Light Exposure

Maximize your exposure to light during the day. This means rising early and opening the blinds to let sunshine into your home. Light coloured rooms and light upholstery that promote brightness will help maintain that feeling of daylight. To help maximize your light exposure at work try to sit near a window. Otherwise, take breaks to go outside.

“Arrange to be outside in the morning for 15 to 20 min. This is one of the most effective things you can do” says Dr. Jeffrey Drugge, Ph.D., Psychologist.

“I sometimes suggest to people to get out of the metro one stop early, park some distance from their workplace, and walk the rest of the way. Or walk around the block once or twice at a brisk pace in the morning before settling into your routine”.

More serious symptoms can be treated with light therapy. This is the number one recommended treatment for seasonal depression and involves daily exposure to bright, artificial light when the symptoms are the strongest. Light therapy devices are specially made to emit a controlled level light that blocks out harmful ultraviolet light. This technique can be used daily from the time the symptoms begin until the season ends and symptoms improve. Seasonal depression experts (8) emphasize that there are side-effects to light therapy (headache, eye-strain, feeling agitated) therefore, it is recommended that this treatment be done with a trained mental health professional experienced in treating SAD with light therapy.

2. Work On Your Mindset

Pay attention to how you think this time of the year and observe if your own interpretations of your mood have an effect on your ability to cope. Ron Page, M.A. Counselling, MFT (Marital & Family Therapist) suggests focusing on your mindset during the winter.

“Seeing the cold as an opportunity to do special things, rather than hibernating away”, he says.

Savour the sense of conquering the cold versus letting the cold defeat you. Take note of negative thoughts. For example, the need to do things perfectly, if you tend to ignore positive events and focus on the negatives, if you label yourself negatively, and always think about the worst-case scenario. This kind of thinking can create obstacles that make you feel “stuck” or helpless and contribute to anxiety and depression. Make an active effort to counter negative thoughts with a more positive outlook. This is an essential part of cognitive behavioural therapeutic approaches to treating depression.

Patrick De Bortoli, M.A., MFT, warns,

“We have to be careful not to fall into the trap of wanting to push away these negative thoughts, à tout prix, which we have a natural tendency to do. The more we do so, the stronger we render the thoughts, which inexorably leads to more rumination and desolation.  Rather, work at greeting negative thoughts, with self-compassion, and with a light, non-judgmental hand, giving them the acknowledgment they deserve and simply watching them come and go.”

3. Focus  On Your Connections With Others-Avoid Isolation

Take some vacation time in the winter to spend time with friends or family that are supportive and have positive attitudes. Nourish the relationships with the important people in your life. Rosaruby Glaberman, M.A., Drama Therapist, encourages her clients to make the effort to share how they feel with the people they love and avoid keeping things inside. If you want to be social but you are looking for others to be social with, taking a class or a workshop, volunteering, or even a service like meetup.com can be great sources of social connections.

“Fight the urge to cocoon yourself. This is really important and, although it may seem like you are being social by staying connected with all of your friends on social media, this does not replace interacting with an actual human being” says, Monica Sweeney, M.A., MFT.

4. Do Something Creative

People who suffer from seasonal depression are distinct in that they are typically more imaginative, more emotionally sensitive, and more likely to entertain unconventional ideas (9). For example, those who search for external explanations for their depression (like the weather) that cannot be changed, over internal factors. This kind of thinking might make people more susceptible to seasonal depression than others.

Creative minds can be particularly susceptible and will find that their motivation to engage in creative work time is very low. They tend to find other duties to prioritize over their own creative time. Rebecca Murray, MA., MFT and director of the Montreal Therapy Centre says,

The winter can be a great time to stay indoors and work on a creative project.  Collages can be a fun and easy way to start and it doesn’t require a lot of space or special materials.  One idea is to use collage to create a vision board to set your intentions for the new year.  Take some time to think about your goals and plans for the coming year.  Then, using old magazines, calendars, coloured paper, or anything else you have on hand, choose images that motivate and inspire you.  You can group images together by category or theme, or assemble them in any number of creative ways.”

5. Get Enough Vitamin D

Vitamin D supplements to help with depressive symptoms, as a ‘natural’ treatment,  has been of interest for quite some time. Our main source of vitamin D comes from sun exposure. However, we also get vitamin D from good nutrition. Researchers at the University of New South Wales, report that there is increasing evidence that people who experience seasonal depression can benefit from Vitamin D supplements (10). They believe, however, that much more research is needed to really assess its effect on depression. A well-balanced diet should be enough to help you ward off symptoms however, if you do decide to supplement your diet with vitamins or other substances, it is always important to do this with the guidance of your doctor and to follow directions carefully in addition to monitoring any changes in mood or other possible side-effects.

6. Exercise

Engage in active winter sports like skiing, pick-up hockey, snowshoeing, or skating. These activities can be really fun and make the winter seem shorter than it really is. The World Health Organization and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence both recommend exercise along with the standard treatment for depression (11,12).

This year a large-scale study reported that when exercise is compared to no treatment, exercise reduces the symptoms of depression (13). When exercise is compared to psychological treatment, the effect is much smaller and not significantly different than psychological treatment. The same is found when exercise was compared to treatment with medication. So, although exercise is not proven to be better that the other two forms of treatment, it is still beneficial to both the body and the mind.

Monica Sweeney, M.A., MFT, recommends engaging in meditation and yoga that include mindful activities, especially if anxiety accompanies the depression, as it does often. She says,

“Mindfulness keeps us in the present which can challenge ruminating about the past or having anxious thoughts about the future”.

Patrick De Bortoli, M.A., MFT adds,

“Regular mindfulness mediation practice is shown again and again, in trial studies, to be one of the most effective ways to cope with anxious and depressive symptoms, improvement of mood and overall well-being.”

He suggests to get accustomed to mindfulness meditation through some free online apps, right before bedtime, like MindSpace, to tackle both mood and sleep hygiene.

Learn more at www.mindful.org.

7. Get Enough Sleep

The quality of your sleep can make a huge difference in how you function during the day.  It is well documented that disturbed sleep is a hallmark of depression with over 80% of those diagnosed reporting sleep disturbances (14). Studies show that sleep disturbances predict the onset of depression, its course, and its recurrence (15). A  2010 study reported that poor sleep quality has negative effects on people with and without depression (16). The lower that people rate their sleep quality, the greater the effect it has on their negative affect. Jeremy Wexler, M.A. Social Work and MFT, says that sleep hygiene is important and very difficult to implement as it gets colder and darker. He emphasizes the resistance of the temptation to crawl into bed with Netflix and a half-bottle of red wine 3 hours before going to sleep.

“Have a regular bedtime and routine. Stay out of bed until 30 minutes before going to sleep (unless it is for lovemaking). Also, no screens 1 hour before sleep and no phones in the bedroom. Avoid alcohol or food 1 hour before bedtime. Cut down on stimulants like caffeine, especially in the afternoon.”

If you tend to wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, he recommends to change locations and do something like read a book or listen to good music until you feel sleepy again, then go back to bed.

“Bed should be associated with sleep, not failing to sleep. A good sleep routine helps you well-rested and stave off the winter blahs.”

Jeffrey Drugge, Ph.D., Psychology, acknowledges that everyone has their good days and bad days.

“When your bad days go on for a week or more, when you have trouble functioning at work, school, home, relationships, or when you are thinking about suicide, it is time to seek professional help.”

Author: Mayte Parada, PhD Psychology