Man dressed in winter clothing staring out at large body of water

"Establishing good habits before the weather takes a turn makes it easier to maintain them during those slumps."

The first days of fall can be a beautiful time and a great opportunity to be outside. But as the season continues to shift, it is not uncommon to also experience a shift in mood. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is brought on by the changing of seasons. 

Also known as seasonal depression, SAD can worsen existing depression or bipolar disorders. While it occurs most often in winter months, people with SAD may feel depressed during any seasonal change, including the summer. 

Depression of any kind should not be taken lightly, as it can greatly impact our ability to carry out daily responsibilities, and negatively affect our overall quality of life. SAD is a reality for many people, but there are ways to address some of its causes and lessen its impact.

Create a Schedule: 

Maintaining a set eating and sleeping schedule has many depression-fighting benefits. Scheduling sleep improves sleep quality and makes it possible to maximize time spent outside in the sunlight, both of which have been found to lessen the symptoms of depression. In addition, setting aside dedicated times for meals can help to counter any depression-related changes in appetite or weight. 

Stay Active: 

Exercise can mitigate symptoms of SAD, while also combatting weight gain, which is a common depression symptom. Physical activity and exercise cause the release of endorphins, which are mood boosting chemicals in the brain. 

Outdoor exercise is the most beneficial, as it can also mean fresh air and sun exposure, however it is more likely to be snowy or raining in the winter, making outdoor exercise more difficult. In this case, using a treadmill, stationary bike, or elliptical machine is a great way to stay active despite the weather. Move your home exercise equipment near a window or take a window spot at the gym to increase your exposure to mood-boosting sunlight and fresh air.

Manage Your Vitamin D Intake:  

Vitamin D deficiency is a known risk factor for depressive disorders, including SAD. Vitamin D is produced when the body is exposed to sunlight, so people are at an increased risk for vitamin D deficiency during the fall and winter months, especially if they live in a northern climate. The National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Research suggests incorporating vitamin D naturally through exposure to sunlight and a vitamin rich diet. This may be more difficult during the winter months, but it’s not impossible. Here are some tips to maximize your vitamin D production:

Get outside: 

  • Take advantage of daylight whenever possible! Even a quick stroll around the block can help. Scheduling a daily walk around noon, when the sun is high will help, but even getting some sunlight on a cloudy day can help you produce vitamin D. If you are unable to go outdoors, keep blinds and curtains open to allow natural light inside. 

Consider light therapy:

  • This particular treatment approach uses exposure to artificial light, designed to mimic sunlight, to help keep circadian rhythms (our sleep-wake cycles) on track. Phototherapy boxes are much brighter than traditional bulbs, and give off light that mimics sunshine.
    Lights with 10,000 lux that emit as little UV light as possible are recommended. (1) Spending 20 – 30 minutes per day in front of these boxes can elevate moods and help to alleviate symptoms of SAD.

Vitamin D supplements:

  • If you live in a climate where there is not sufficient sunlight during the winter months, you can also try taking a vitamin D supplement, although it is currently unclear whether these supplements improve the symptoms of SAD. 

Avoid Depressants (Alcohol): 

Having a beer or a glass of wine is a common way to combat stress, but using alcohol to cope with depression can quickly spiral into an unhealthy dependence. In addition, alcohol is a depressant, a type of substance known to disrupt the brain’s natural balance of chemicals, which can negatively impact mood. 

While it might be normal to unwind with a drink here or there, it is important to do so in moderation and remain aware of the impact it has on your mood. If you notice your mood usually drops after having a few drinks, then try to cut back or have something else to drink.

More Than The Average Winter Blues 

Seasonal depression is often referred to as “the winter blues” but this is not entirely accurate, as these seasonal shifts can occur in spring and summer, as well. SAD is often overlooked during warmer months, but a shift in spring or summer can have the same impact as rolling into fall or winter.

As frost and snow fall away for the year, there is social pressure to get outside to enjoy the sunshine. Social pressures can lead to added stress, both for yourself and if you are a dad – for your kids. The ‘back to school season’ causes a shift in routines, forcing parents to accommodate school schedules and pick-ups while also making time for homework and extracurriculars. All of these factors can make the summer months more difficult for some men.

Because SAD is a type of depression, it is important to speak to a physician if your symptoms are prolonged. It is not uncommon to experience the “winter blues”, but it can be difficult to differentiate one type of depression from another. It’s important to consult a doctor as they can offer insight and recommendations regarding your symptoms and additional steps you can take to improve your mental health

When it comes to seasonal struggles, the best offence is a good defence. If you are prone to SAD, it is a good idea to take proactive steps, like those listed above, leading up to the seasons when you typically notice symptoms. Consider participating in mood boosting activities to prepare yourself for the upcoming season. Establishing good habits before the weather takes a turn makes it easier to maintain them during those slumps.


References:

  1. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2022). Seasonal affective disorder treatment: Choosing a light box. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/in-depth/seasonal-affective-disorder-treatment/art-20048298
Approved by the HeadsUpGuys Team - Combining lived experience, clinical practice, and research expertise. Medically reviewed by Dr. John Ogrodniczuk.
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