Picture of Sarah Panofsky

Sarah Panofsky

I am a clinical counsellor, educator, and researcher.

Squamish November Blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder

It’s mid-November and in my home in Valleycliffe, I enjoy the sun streaming through my window a few precious hours in the day. The sun comes up over Slhaney, I lose her behind the Siám’ Smánit (the Stawamus Chief) and then she returns for a little while longer, casting long shadows of the kitty on the floor. Long, dark nights and dusky mornings are upon us and as we adjust to this new reality of emerging winter, it is not unusual that we might feel a sadness or a longing inside—for bright, easeful summer days, for freedom, for anything, perhaps, but the drudgery, the difficulty of now.

For some the melancholy of fall and winter causes Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD (aptly named)-in the DSM-5-TR this is “Major Depressive Disorder with seasonal pattern”. SAD describes a significant mood change which impacts how a person feels, thinks, and manages daily life. Typically, SAD is initiated in the late fall or early winter, though some do experience a summer pattern in the spring and summer months. SAD follows a recurrent seasonal pattern and symptoms may last 4 or 5 months out of the year.

SAD follows the symptoms of major depression that include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
  • Having problems with sleep
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having low energy
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

Other symptoms, specific to the winter pattern of SAD are:

  • Oversleeping
  • Overeating, particularly craving for carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Social withdrawal

What causes SAD?

Research on SAD in inconclusive but it may be that SAD develops due to a reduction in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps with mood regulation, due to less sunlight exposure. Other research suggests that individuals with SAD produce more melatonin than they need. Melatonin, a hormone important to the sleep-wake cycle, causes sleepiness. In SAD, daily rhythms, influenced by excessive melatonin and a reduction of serotonin may be disrupted.

What can you do about SAD?

  1. Notice feeling down. Be curious about it. How does it show up in your body? Your thoughts? Your behaviours? Rather than fighting the low mood that is visiting, can you let it be here, exactly as it is? How can you nourish yourself in this time of darkness?
  2. Work with your therapist to untangle this seasonal pattern of depression and cultivate new coping strategies.
  3. Move your body and breathe fresh air- even if it’s in darkness, even if it’s inside.
  4. Use a therapy lamp first thing when you get up in morning. This helps to regulate your circadian rhythm.
  5. Vitamin D may help give you the boost you need.

Partonen, T., & Lönnqvist, J. (1998). Seasonal affective disorder. CNS drugs, 9(3), 203-212.

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