With the sun setting before the work day ends and staying inside due to the cold — only made worse this year because of the pandemic — the winter blues are in full swing.
Seasonal Affective Disorder — also known as SAD — is a type of mood disorder that usually occurs in the winter months, but it is not the same thing as the “winter blues."
“If you surveyed undergraduate students in Canadian universities, you would probably find about 60-somewhat per cent would say they experience feeling down or blue, periodically. So that is more common, but to actually be a disorder, it is far fewer,” explained David Dozois, a psychology professor at Western.
While feeling sad and unmotivated during the winter months is common, SAD tends to have symptoms similar to major depression, such as difficulty concentrating, appetite changes, sleep changes and feelings of worthlessness are common with the disorder.
Dozois noted that only about two to three per cent of the Canadian population will experience seasonal affective disorder and explained that changes in brain activity could be the culprit.
“One [reason] is this neurotransmitter in the brain called serotonin. It tends to be lower in people who experience depression,” said Dozois. “And another is a hormone called melatonin, which is produced by the pineal gland and that responds to darkness, by causing sleepiness. We know that, for example, people with seasonal affective disorder tend to have [melatonin] levels that are too high.”
Neurotransmitters act as chemicals in the body and too much or too little of their activity can have severe consequences.
Vitamin D, another culprit, is naturally produced in the body due to sunlight. In the winter, with less sun exposure and time spent outdoors, its levels in the body may be much lower than normal, especially if it isn't supplemented elsewhere.
“Depression is a combination of things, but the seasonal part of it does seem to be a bit more biological and obviously, related to the lack of sunlight. But also, if you think about it, in the winter months we also tend to do less,” said Dozois. “It’s not just darkness, we also are not getting out as much in the cold, we're not going for walks, it’s a very complex thing that I think, would be best described as really a biopsychosocial approach: it's biological, it’s social and it’s psychological.”
Dozois also notes a correlation between the incidence of SAD and northern latitudes. People who live in Canada are more likely to feel the effects of the disorder than those living in Florida, for example.
For SAD treatments, Dozois recommends two primary techniques — the first is cognitive behavioural therapy. This therapy deals with two problems that people with SAD are likely to exhibit: negative thinking — the cognition — or negative actions — the behaviour.
“Instead of a downward spiral, [we are] trying to turn that spiral around, by helping people basically to do things, even though they don't feel like doing them,” explained Dozois. “So you're trying to basically help people to increase a sense of pleasure and increase a sense of mastery or accomplishment. Getting them to do more.”
Dozois compares this treatment with those of any type of clinical depression, in fact, he notes the similarities are uncanny, both disorders show very similar symptoms, so it makes sense that the treatments should be similar as well.
The second treatment, contrary to CBT and not used in all clinical depression treatments, is phototherapy.
“There's some empirical evidence for phototherapy, or light therapy, where you can find this light that kind of mimics natural sunlight. Sort of, it's not just any light, it's a higher intensity light,” says Dozois. “What people tend to do is sit in front of that light early in the morning for about 30 minutes to a couple of hours.”
These types of lamps can be found at Amazon and Walmart, and while the therapy may sound odd, it could serve as a viable alternative for those who are unable — or unwilling — to obtain natural sunlight.
“I often tell people that action comes before motivation and that you have to do and then the motivation will come.”