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Seasonal Depression (aka Winter Depression)

Summary: Seasonal affective disorder (aka SAD, season depression or winter depression in North America) is a type of depression that occurs in the fall/winter months and is felt to be due to the lack of sunlight during those months.
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What is Seasonal Depression?

"I used to really hate the winters. I'd get sad and start crying for no reason. I'd just hibernate - stop going out, sleep all the time, and couldn't stop eating carbs, and I'd gain ten pounds every winter. And then I realized that really what I had was winter depression."

 

Seasonal affective disorder (aka SAD, season depression or winter depression in North America) is a type of depression that occurs in the fall/winter months. It usually begins in late fall or early winter and goes away by summer, and is felt to be due to the seasonal lack of sunlight.

 

But doesn't everyone get a little bit down in the winter? A lot of people do get the "winter blues", where they may feel a bit more down or sad in the winter. But with "winter blues", the symptoms don't get in the way of life like they do in winter depression. 

What Does Winter Depression look like?

The classic symptoms of winter depression are:

  • Mood problems such as sadness, boredom or feeling more irritable
  • Increased need for sleep
  • Fatigue and low energy
  • Increased appetite, with cravings for carbohydrates (such as bread, pasta, sweets), which may result in weight gain
  • A tendency to want to avoid social situations, as well as being more sensitive to rejection
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities

With more severe symptoms, one may also note feelings or hopelessness or helplessness. In those cases, see a health professional (such as a family doctor).

 

Symptoms come back every fall and winter months (when there is less sunlight).

 

Sometimes it can be hard to figure out whether or not the mood problems are due to lack of sunlight or due to other factors (because school and related stresses also start in the fall).

If You Suspect Seasonal Depression

If you suspect that your child/youth has depression, have him/her seen by a doctor (such as a family physician or paediatrician) to make sure there aren't any medical problems (such as a hormonal imbalance) that might be causing or contributing to the depression. The doctor may recommend more specialized mental health services such as seeing a psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker.

How is Seasonal Affective Depression (SAD) Treated?

Light Therapy

 

Because seasonal depression usually occurs in the fall/winter, when there is less sunlight, the treatment of choice is to provide that missing light via light therapy. Light therapy involves using a special lamp (with UV filter) that can deliver a sufficiently bright light to treat depression (i.e. 5,000 to 10,000 lux of light; lux is a measure of light). You usually sit near a light box for 30-60 minutes a day, most often in the mornings. You don't stare directly into the light, but rather you sit near it and do other activities such as reading, working on the computer, eating breakfast, etc.

 

The starting dosage of light therapy is usually 10,000 lux for 30-minutes a day.

 

This is done during the fall/winter months, until enough daylight is available, typically in the springtime.

 

Significant improvement can often be seen within days.

 

Side effects of light therapy

 

When used properly, light therapy seems to have very few side effects. Side effects include eye strain, headache, fatigue, irritability and trouble sleeping at night (if light therapy is used too late in the day).

 

Caution is required with light therapy in people with bipolar or manic depressive disorders (due to possible risk of causing a manic episode); skin that is sensitive to light, or medical conditions that make their eyes vulnerable to light damage.

 

Tanning beds are not helpful for treating seasonal depression, as they provide a different type of light (i.e. UV light) that is more for tanning than for helping depression.

 

Other Ways to Treat SAD

 

Other helpful strategies include:

  • Making sure that your child is eating and sleeping properly, and getting enough exercise.
  • Antidepressant medications may be helpful in some cases.
  • Stress management: help your child or youth figure out what is stressful, and come up with a plan to deal with these stresses.
  • Mental health professionals can offer counselling and therapy.

Some Suggestions for Coping with Seasonal Depression

  • Get started early with light therapy or other strategies, early in the fall, before the usual onset of symptoms later in the fall/winter.
  • Educate yourself, family and close friends about seasonal depression to get their understanding and support.
  • Take advantage of natural day light in the winter as much as possible
    • Exercise daily outdoors by going for walks during daylight hours, or other activities, and get someone to go with you. (One study showed that an hour's walk in winter sunlight was as effective as two and a half hours under bright artificial light.) (Lam, 2007)
    • Arrange family outings and social occasions for day times and early evening in winter
  • Work strategies
    • If possible, ensure that you have an office with a window, or take frequent breaks to get exposure to outdoor light
    • If possible, ensure that you have full spectrum lights
  • Stay on a regular sleep/wake schedule on both weekdays and weekends
    • Avoid staying up late, as this disrupts your sleep schedule and biological clock
  • If you are able, arrange a winter vacation in a sunny climate! 

For More Information

Websites

Readings

  • Don't be SAD: Your guide to conquering Seasonal Affective Disorder, Peter Celeste, Script Publishing, 1994
  • Winter Blues, Norman Rosenthal, Guilford Press, 1998

References

  • Canadian Consensus Guidelines for the Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder, edited by Raymond Lam and Anthony Levitt, Clinical & Academic Publishing, 1999. Available also from http://www-fhs.mcmaster.ca/direct/sad.html
  • Lam RW, Levitt AJ, Levitan RD, et al. The CAN-SAD Study: A randomized controlled trial of the effectiveness of light therapy and fluoxetine in patients with winter seasonal affective disorder. Am J Psychiatry 2006;163:805-812.

Where to Find a Light Therapy Lamp

To find a light therapy lamp, you can visit many pharmacies and drug stores. Otherwise, you can also try contacting a light therapy lamp manufacturer directly.

 

Here are some Canadian manufacturers:

  • Northern Light Technologies, 8971 Henri-Bourassa W., Montreal, Canada, H4S 1P7, Tel: 514-335-1763, Toll free: 1-800-263-0066, Fax: 514-335-7764
    Website: http://www.northernlighttechnologies.com
  • Uplift Technologies Inc., 1-800-387-0896, 125-11 Morris Drive, Dartmouth, NS, B3B 1M2, Canada, Tel: (902) 422-0804, Fax: (902) 422-0798
    Website: http://www.day-lights.com

About this Document

Written by the eMentalHealth Team.  

Disclaimer

Information in this pamphlet is offered ‘as is' and is meant only to provide general information that supplements, but does not replace the information from your health provider. Always contact a qualified health professional for further information in your specific situation or circumstance. 

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Date Posted: Sep 24, 2008
Date of Last Revision: Oct 9, 2016

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