How to cope with seasonal affective disorder

November 1, 2023

Does the winter weather have you feeling blue? Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is more common than you might think. Approximately 3% of Canadians will experience SAD in their lifetime. An additional 15% of Canadians experience a milder form of SAD that gives them slight depression, but they can still function without disrupting their life. 

What is seasonal affective disorder? 

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that people who live in northern climates—like Canada—experience during the fall and winter months. As the days get shorter and there is less and less sunlight, people can start to experience SAD. While there isn’t a proven cause of SAD, researchers believe it is tied to the lack of sunlight.  

There is also an underlying hereditary link being explored. Between 13-17% of people who develop SAD have an immediate family member with the disorder. 

What are the signs and symptoms of SAD? 

The signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder mirror those of depression. The difference is that these signs and symptoms appear and disappear at the same approximate time each year.  

The major symptom is a despairing mood that happens most days and lasts most of the day. It also lasts for more than two weeks and impairs the person’s performance in their daily life.  

Other symptoms include: 

  • Issues with sleep
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Loss of interest in work and hobbies
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Fatigue and irritability
  • Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism, or low self-esteem
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Crying easily
  • Thoughts of suicide

Five ways to help you manage seasonal affective disorder

If you are suffering from seasonal affective disorder or are feeling a milder form of SAD, there are things you can do to help.  

1. Explore light therapy

Because SAD has been tied to the lack of sunlight in the fall and winter months, exposure to bright artificial light has been shown to help those experiencing SAD. This treatment is known as ​​​​light therapy which is the exposure to artificial light at controlled wavelengths to treat various medical disorders, including seasonal affective disorder.

2. Up your vitamin D intake

The sun is one of your primary vitamin D sources, which is essential for your overall health. Increasing your vitamin D intake can help you through the winter months. Consider adding foods with high levels of vitamin D: 

  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Canned tuna
  • Egg yolks
  • Mushrooms
  • Foods fortified with vitamin D

You can also take a vitamin D supplement, but speak with your doctor beforehand.

3. Make healthy food choices

Getting ahead of anything is hard when you aren’t properly fueling your body. And if you aren’t making the right food choices, you may be increasing the negative impact on your mood. 

Processed and refined foods can have a negative impact on your brain and your mood. There is a link between eating a lot of high sugar and processed food and lower brain function and mood. It’s known as the gut-brain association, which you can read more about in How Food Affects Your Mood.

If you’re unsure where to start when overhauling your diet, turn to Canada’s Food Guide for help. The basics for creating a balanced plate are: 

  • Have plenty of vegetables and fruits
  • Eat a variety of protein foods, including plant-based protein
  • Choose whole grain foods
  • Make water your drink of choice

4. Get physically active

Get those endorphins flowing! The 24-Hour Movement Guidelines recommend that Canadian adults get 150 minutes of exercise per week.  

Exercise and physical activity releases endorphins and activates neurotransmitters that are linked to feelings of well-being and happiness. Plus, if you bundle up and exercise outside, you can get a little sunshine.  

5. Seek professional help

First and foremost, if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, it is important to seek professional help. Speak to your doctor. They can help you decide the best treatment plan for you and rule out other possible explanations for your symptoms. 

Verify with your employer if you have access to an EFAP—an Employee and Family Assistance Program that provides confidential counselling and wellness resource services for employees and their eligible family members.

If you have concerns about your mental well-being—or the mental well-being of someone you love—contact a doctor and ask for an evaluation.

And if you are looking for more resources, please reach out to any of the following organizations: 

Kids Help Phone 
Text Services: Text "CONNECT" to 686868 (also serving adults) 
Chat Services: 

Crisis Services Canada 
Toll Free (24/7): 1 (833) 456-4566 
Text support (4pm-12am ET daily): 45645 

Canadian Crisis Hotline 
1 (888) 353-2273 

The LifeLine App 

Please always check with a medical professional to ensure these strategies are right for you. 

Other resources you may be interested in: 

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