Articles: Emotions and Other Adjustments

SAD and Blue

“It’s that time of the year again.”

What a silly statement with which to begin! EVERY day, if you think about it, can be described as “that time of the year.”

But somehow February seems to be a particularly difficult point in the calendar for many people. I read that the most depressing day of the year is actually January 24th, because it is then that the Christmas season CREDIT CARD bill comes in … usually depressingly high! And we often carry that over into the next month when many experience “the February Blues.”


The syndrome is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, and is a type of depression related to changes in seasons. More recently it has been described as “depression with a seasonal pattern.”

For a lot of people, this SAD experience is very real. It seems to be related to the amount of sunlight that you are exposed to. That explains why SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year, for most people their symptoms starting around December and continuing into the winter months.

What are the indicators of SAD? People with the syndrome often feel tired and lethargic; they may seem withdrawn to family, friends and colleagues; they may have less interest in activities that they usually enjoy. Other symptoms may include:

  • Irritability
  • Tiredness or low energy
  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Losing interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Having problems with sleeping or oversleeping
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Problems getting along with other people
  • Appetite changes, especially craving foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain


While the exact cause of SAD is unknown, researchers believe the condition may be related to the body’s internal clock, which regulates temperature and hormone production. Nerve centers in the brain control our daily moods and rhythms, and are stimulated by the amount of light that enters our eyes. During the night or in periods of reduced light (such as occurs in winter) the brain produces a hormone called melatonin, and SAD may be related to these increased levels of melatonin in the body.

Accordingly, on dull winter days, people with the condition may have difficulty waking up, or may feel drowsy or “down” during the day. Interestingly, in Alaska, where there is very little daylight during the winter, over 10% of the population suffers from SAD.


There are several forms of therapies available to help people with SAD. In this article, I am simply bringing some recent research to your attention to encourage those experiencing such symptoms to seek qualified professional help.

Light therapy has become recognized as an important tool against SAD. Research has demonstrated how daily exposure to bright light (phototherapy) may help balance certain brain chemicals and reset body rhythms. Usually, light therapy involves sitting in front of a “light box” with a high-intensity fluorescent light source meant to simulate daylight. The therapy is not without some problems, however, and may cause side effects including eye strain, headaches, nausea, and agitation, which again focusses the importance of checking with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. 

In the field of counselling, cognitive therapy can help people learn about their SAD condition, discover ways to manage their symptoms and prevent recurring episodes of depression. One of my “life lessons” in counselling has been the realization that there is a “reason for every reaction.”  We need to understand the why behind the behavior, before rushing to find the how to alleviate the symptoms. Reactions never happen in a vacuum. So we must ask why this person is displaying SAD symptoms. Sometimes, encouraging family participation in the counselling can be helpful, not just to learn how to cope with a loved one’s behaviors, but to understand the reasons behind them.

So, if you are affected by SAD, or even just feeling “down” this time of the year, here are some things that can help.

Daily exercise
Regular physical activity helps fight both fatigue and depression, especially if you exercise during the day or near light sources. Keep in mind that outdoor light, even when the sky is overcast, is often brighter than light boxes, so an hour spent outside during the day can help ease symptoms of SAD and prevent episodes of depression. Find an outdoor hobby that you can enjoy throughout the winter months such as skating, skiing or walking.

Seek the sun

Try to get outside as often as possible especially during the cold winter months. Even weak sunlight and light reflected off snow can increase your exposure to light and help ease symptoms of SAD. Arrange your home or office to maximize your exposure to light. Open blinds; sit closer to bright sunlit windows for reading, eating, or working while at home or in the office.

Take a holiday
We all have to endure long Canadian winters … so if you can, go to some sunny resort or take a cruise somewhere to enjoy a dose of sunlight.

Be aware of your moods
Self-awareness can alleviate some of the feelings of distress during these seasons. Be aware of your moods and energy level and attempt to maintain perspective. Remember above all that SAD is not your fault … it is a condition that can be treated.

You are not alone

SAD is still not fully understood, but if you are experiencing feelings that are greater than mild depression, do not be afraid to ask for help. Talk to your friends, your family, and your doctor who will support you. Using your support network can help decrease those feelings of isolation or sadness.

I love this quote by Albert Camus:

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger, something better, pushing right back.” 

Hang in! Spring is on the way.