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Don't be SAD

Tips for managing winter blues and seasonal depression

Don't be SAD
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Strategies for preventing and minimizing seasonal affective disorder

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, November / December 2010

Winnipeg has a reputation for being one of the sunniest cities in Canada.

However, that all changes when November rolls around and the sun heads south for the winter, leaving in its wake shorter days and longer nights.

Not surprisingly, this sudden change in our environment can also lead to mood changes. For most people, these changes are mild and hardly noticeable. But for others, they can be quite significant and may fall under a type of seasonal depression known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD.

This condition is thought to be linked to a reduction in sunlight, which in turn disrupts the body's internal clock. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, SAD affects two to three per cent of the population, while a milder form of "winter blues" may affect as much as 15 per cent of the population.

SAD tends to occur more frequently in adults versus youth, affects more women than men, and is also thought to run in families. Many people experience mild mood changes with shifts in the weather, like feeling uplifted on a bright sunny day or feeling tired after a cloudy week. But for a small percentage of people, seasonal changes can mean more serious disruptions in their daily life.

Those who experience seasonal depression may notice changes in their eating and sleeping routines. Other common symptoms of SAD include extreme fatigue, a craving for sweets and starchy foods, or changes in weight. People suffering from SAD may also have pronounced feelings of sadness, guilt, and hopelessness. They can also feel irritable and tense and tend to isolate themselves, withdrawing from relationships and their usual social activities. Difficulty concentrating and making decisions can also affect a person's ability to go about their daily tasks at home or at work.

Only a doctor or psychologist can diagnose SAD. It is important to speak to your family doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms. Your doctor will be able to assess your symptoms and also rule out any underlying conditions such as thyroid dysfunction or anemia that could be the cause of your problem. It is helpful to be prepared for this appointment by writing down any changes in your mood, sleep, appetite, activity level and thought patterns as well as any questions you may have about what you are experiencing.

There are a number of common treatments for SAD. Counselling, for example, can be helpful. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is another effective treatment available through qualified therapists and psychologists. Consult the CMHA Mental Health Resource Guide for Winnipeg for a listing of counselling resources available in Winnipeg.

Medications may also be helpful in treating moderate to severe depression. Type of medication, dose and length of treatment will vary greatly with each individual and should be recommended and monitored by your doctor.

Some people have found light therapy to be helpful in reducing symptoms of depression.

According to the Mayo Clinic, sitting approximately 14 inches away from a light box that produces 10,000 lux (a measurement of light intensity) for a minimum of 30 minutes each morning may be helpful. Light boxes can be rented or purchased, and the cost may be covered by some health-care plans with a medical prescription.

There are a number of other things that a person can do for themselves to help ease the symptoms of SAD or to fight off the "winter blues" according to Dr. Murray Enns, Director of the Winnipeg Health Region's Mental Health Program.

For example, milder cases of SAD can be prevented by maintaining activities in the winter months, increasing exposure to bright outdoor light, regular exercise, and maintaining or increasing social contacts. Enns says, "People who have a known history of a more severe case of SAD can prevent the symptoms from recurring by using light therapy or medication prior to the time of year when these seasonal symptoms generally emerge."

Laurie McPherson is a mental health promotion coordinator with the Winnipeg Health Region.


About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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