The impacts of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Kim Silverthorn – Master Practitioner of Clinical Counselling (MPCC) and Counselling Therapist (CT).

Dear Tacit,

What is SAD and how do I know if I have it? Maybe I’m just depressed – it’s hard to tell with COVID and with winter just arriving.

Signed: Winter Blues

Dear Winter Blues,

Most of us feel a change in our energy levels and degrees of exhaustion as winter rolls in. It is a season that requires a different type of balance if we want to stay healthy. We need to eat better, find ways to be active and make the effort to intentionally connect with others more if we want to have the energy that seems to come more naturally accompany our summer months. (Ironically, COVID has been teaching us this new balance for quite some time, so many of us might feel more prepared for winter already if we have been finding ways to adapt to the pandemic!)

But about five to 20 per cent of society develops a very serious type of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (otherwise referred to as SAD). SAD often strikes our younger population (aged 18 to 35) more than it does the older generation, and is reported four times more frequently by women than by men (this stat is likely partially the result of a reporting pattern as much as it is an experiencing frequency – men are statistically much less likely to report emotional/psychological issues in general).

Seasonal Affective Disorder is caused by a decrease in the production of one of our natural happy hormones called serotonin (which is influenced by a decrease in the productivity of vitamin D) and by an increase in one of our natural relaxation hormones called melatonin (which can be influenced by the increase in darkness). SAD affects most people during the winter months but it can also strike during spring/summer, as the longer nights are not the sole cause of a serotonin/melatonin imbalance.

SAD looks a lot like depression, but the symptoms will disappear when the season passes. SAD will often have an adverse affect on memory and one’s ability to concentrate/focus; it decreases energy levels and causes sleeping problems; and it impacts appetite and weight loss patterns. SAD influences our mood and our ability to emotionally regulate (which can increase feelings of irritability, sadness and apathy) and it lessens the accuracy of our process of self-reflection (which can increase a sense of hopelessness, powerlessness and worthlessness). The symptoms of this very real mental health disorder often lead to increases with addiction issues, abuse/violence and suicidal thoughts and behaviours, as people struggle to find more healthy coping strategies. In order to be diagnosed with SAD, a person typically needs to experience the signs/symptoms for at least two consecutive years (which is why it is critical to speak to your doctor about how you are feeling on an ongoing basis).

Research shows us that the most useful tool for treating SAD is light therapy (on a daily basis – the more consistent this can happen, the better the results). Exposure to bright light therapy within the first hour of waking is ideal for stopping the overproduction of the body’s natural melatonin. It also boosts vitamin D production and typically increases levels of serotonin, as a person is often sitting and relaxing while they are under the light. Taking a daily vitamin D supplement (drops or pills are available) is another great technique for fighting back against SAD or the winter blues in general. As is increasing your vitamin B intake, especially in the mornings. Eating well helps a great deal too – avoiding excess carbs and ensuring your diet is rich in protein and Omega-3 fatty acids is ideal for a nutritional foundation that helps internally regulate SAD.

Many people find counselling a useful tool – a therapist can help teach many techniques that increase serotonin naturally through the use of a person’s cognitive processing. Sometimes, antidepressant medications might also be beneficial – as are relaxation techniques like massage, yoga, meditation, guided imagery, and art/creative therapy activities. Keeping the indoor environment bright and staying warm lessens the fatigue and lethargy that so often accompanies SAD. And regular social connection is essential to help alleviate the emotional funk and withdrawal that exasperates the depression that SAD creates.

We don’t yet fully understand everything there is to know about Seasonal Affective Disorder. But what we do know works well.  Many people try to ignore their symptoms and push through SAD, which only makes things worse. The best thing you (or someone you know) can do if you think you might have Seasonal Affective Disorder is to reach out to a doctor or find a therapist right away to start addressing your needs.

Take Care!

Kim Silverthorn B.A., R.P.C., M.P.C.C., C.T. is a registered MPCC through the Canadian Professional Counsellors Association and a registered CT through the Association of Clinical Therapists of Alberta. She is the owner of/therapist with Tacit Knowledge, a local counselling agency in Beaumont. She has been providing therapeutic support and professional development training for more than 30 years.

See more from Kim at If you have a question that you would like Dear Tacit to answer relating to any mental health issue, please feel free to email Kim at This column is a psycho-educational support and is not designed to be a substitute for counselling.

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