The Seasonal Blues: Understanding and Helping Seasonal Affective Disorder

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

SAD is a mood disorder which, according to the online resource Here to Help BC, affects 2-3% of Canadians.  Those suffering with SAD notice a dip in their mood as the seasons change, particularly from Fall to Winter. Days grow shorter and sunlight diminishes. Certain climates are also known for their relentless lack of sunshine.

SAD is a variation of major depression and its symptoms may include:

  • A notable change in mood with the seasons, particularly the transition from Fall to Winter when daylight hours are fewer
  • Low mood
  • Irritability
  • Lack of energy
  • Increased carbohydrate and sugar cravings
  • Sleep disturbance—insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Problems concentrating
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Decrease in sex drive

Those diagnosed with SAD note that the above symptoms typically improve during other times of the year.

What Causes SAD?

As its name suggests, SAD is believed to be associated with a reduction in daylight, particularly sunlight, although this seems to be only part of the answer.  Other data suggests that SAD runs in families.

Who is Most Vulnerable to SAD?

Here to Help BC suggests that the groups most susceptible to SAD include:

  • Adults between 20-50 years.  After the age of 50, the incidence declines.
  • Women, who are noted to be 8 times more likely to suffer from SAD
  • Those living in Northern Climates where daylight hours are fewer.


  • The first step is obtaining a proper diagnosis.  In British Columbia, medical doctors (family physicians, psychiatrists), registered psychologists and registered clinical social workers are authorized to make diagnoses.  A thorough assessment is critical for determining whether you are suffering from SAD or from another clinical condition. Some physical conditions may also imitate the symptoms of SAD; an MD can assess for this.
  • Many have found light therapy to be helpful.  Light therapy uses a full spectrum light box or blue light that is used for a prescribed amount of time per day. This is best done under the supervision of a medical professional, as there are guidelines around the amount of time per day that they box should be used.  Also, in some cases, use can lead to side effects which can include agitation, headache and nausea. Light boxes can be rented at some major pharmacies and medical supply stores, although the price has gone down considerably over the years.
  • Counselling/Psychotherapy, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Here, the counsellor helps clients to examine thoughts, feelings and behaviours which influence our mood, and looks at systematic strategies for making changes in these areas.
  • Medication – Medication has been used widely to treat all forms of depression, including SAD.  If this option interests you, speak with your doctor.
  • Exercise – Exercise has been shown to be profoundly helpful in the treatment of mood disorders.  It is important to choose a form of exercise that appeals to you and that you could see yourself doing regularly.  Think reality, not ideal.  Exercise that you can do outdoors can be particularly beneficial for SAD, as it exposes you to more daylight at the same time.  Dress comfortably for the weather.
  • Diet Eating healthfully when depressed can be a challenge as energy, motivation and appetite are often low.  Choose healthy convenience foods such as pre-washed salads and baby carrots, nut butters with whole grain breads, fruits and yogurt. Also, consumers now have increasingly more options when it comes to healthy frozen entrees and delivery services.
  • Your Living Environment – Incorporate as much natural light is possible.  Keep curtains and blinds open in daylight hours, choose a windowed work space if possible and  go outside every day during the day, if only briefly.