Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) has similar symptoms to Depression, but is inextricably linked to the change in sunlight during the winter. The days are shorter, the light is less, and your mood, energy, and concentration may take a serious hit. Those living in more northern latitudes (us brave Canadians) are at significantly higher risk of developing SAD than our neighbours to the south.
Symptoms include feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, loss of energy, oversleeping, a heavy feeling in arms or legs, social withdrawal, loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, appetite changes (you want more carbs), weight gain, and difficulty concentrating.
Now some of us may experience those feelings randomly throughout the year – we all have days where we feel low, grumpy, sad, or sleepy (I think I just named Snow White’s dwarves). Yet, when those feelings are prolonged and persistent (clinicians would say 2 weeks; I, who am definitely not a clinician, would say when symptoms have gone on longer than before and are having a significant impact on your functioning at work and home), it is time to seek help.
There are a number of therapies available, including light therapy which has been shown to alleviate symptoms in those who experience SAD. It involves sitting or being close to an artificial light for a few hours per day. Here’s what one could look like. The other option is getting outside during the lunch hour, taking more frequent breaks during the work day to get outside, or shifting offices for the season (if possible).
I work in an office with no natural light. Some days I arrive and leave work when it is still dark. Some days I do not get outside for a run at lunch. I’ve recently noticed a considerable shift in my mood, energy levels, sleeping patters, morning wake-up, and grump level. Yesterday I made it a priority to get outside for a run during lunch. It was a stunning day in Calgary and I was proud of myself for going alone (usually I excuse myself if a colleague doesn’t join in). I felt more energized for the afternoon and even worked a little later (not saying this is always a good thing).
While I may not have SAD, I am definitely feeling the effects of winter in the northern hemisphere. I realize I need to be more strict with myself about getting outside at lunch for a walk or run and will continue to do so for the season. Last year I worked in a cubicle exposed to continuous sunlight so I didn’t necessarily notice winter as much. This year, I must be more vigilant if I want to better manage my mood and mindset.
Pay attention to how you’re feeling. Notice how you’re sleeping. Observe your eating patterns. Take action when you notice something is slipping. Don’t wait and see.
Your mental health is just as important as physical health and you’re the only one that is going to truly take care of you. You matter. You deserve to feel good this holiday season, but you’re likely going to have to work at it. Put in the time, make the best decisions you can for you, and you will hopefully reap some reward.
Rosen L., et al. Prevalence of seasonal affective disorder at four latitudes. Psychiatry Research. 1990. 31, 131-144.
Terman M., et al. Light therapy for seasonal affective disorder. American College of Neuropsychopharmacology. 1989.