Winter brings many positive things such as sweater weather, warm soup and winter sports.   A Canadian way of life includes dealing with snow, ice and cold temperatures.

However, for many of us, this way of life can become taxing and we begin to dread the darkness and cold. This is often known as the winter blues — that feeling of sadness that comes this time of year and it affects approximately 15% of the population.  A smaller proportion (2-3%) experience a more serious condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD) according to the Canadian Mental Health Association

SAD can be difficult to diagnose, since many of the symptoms are similar to other types of depression. Generally, symptoms that recur for at least two consecutive winters, without any other explanation for the changes in mood and behaviour, indicate the presence of SAD. They may include: change in appetite (in particular a craving for sweet or starchy foods) weight gain, decreased energy, tendency to oversleep, difficulty concentrating, irritability, anxiety and despair.  The symptoms of SAD generally disappear when spring arrives. For some people, this happens suddenly with a short period of heightened activity. For others, the effects of SAD gradually resolve.

So how is SAD treated?  People with mild symptoms can benefit from spending more time outdoors during the day and by arranging their environments so that they receive maximum sunlight.  Exercise (especially outdoors or in an environment with exposure to natural light) relieves stress, builds energy and increases your mental and physical well-being.  A winter vacation in a sunny destination can also temporarily relieve SAD symptoms, although symptoms usually recur after returning home. Many people with SAD respond well to exposure to bright, artificial light. “Light therapy,” involves sitting beside a special fluorescent light box for several minutes per day.

For those with severe symptoms — complete lack of interest in activities; excessive tiredness or thoughts of harming oneself — it is important to seek medical attention.  Devising a treatment plan with your doctor consisting of light therapy, medication and cognitive-behavioural therapy may be needed.  So have faith, the winter won’t last forever and if you are affected, there are ways to make it more bearable. Take care of yourselves and each other.