Adjusting to the seasonal blues

Seasonal Affective Disorder and the truth behind the winter blues

As winter approaches each year so too does seasonal affective disorder (SAD). For students, SAD symptoms can be tough to navigate combined with academic stressors and increased workloads as the semester unfolds.

Unfortunately, feelings of isolation caused by the pandemic may amplify SAD symptoms throughout the winter months this year. With the first snowfall of the season behind us in Kamloops and midterms upon us at TRU, you might be feeling blue (don’t worry, me too).

Local Kamloops physician and SAD support group coordinator, Dr. Daniel McBain, describes SAD as a drop in energy and mood as we transition into fall and winter. Many begin to feel the effects of SAD as early as fall equinox within the northern hemisphere.

As the days grow shorter and the weather colder, those plagued by SAD may “experience sadness and anxiety… become socially withdrawn, have trouble concentrating… oversleep and overeat and become uninterested in everyday activities.” At its worst, the disorder can cause hopelessness and result in lethargy, therefore squashing its victims’ spirits and diminishing motivation.

McBain says SAD looks a lot like clinical depression stating that “actually, in the latest diagnostic manual [the disorder] was renamed and is now called major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern.”

Although in its most severe form it is a form of major depression, McBain says, “symptom severity really varies from patient to patient.” While some become tired and do not experience a drop in mood, other individuals experience a combination of both symptoms.

Statistics regarding the disorder vary quite widely. While some suggest that SAD is higher in women, McBain suspects “that it is probably highly underreported in men.”

Comparatively, while several statistics indicate that anywhere from 5 to 20 per cent of individuals within the northern climates experience SAD, one statistic in the U.S. suggests only six percent of individuals live with the disorder.

McBain remarked that “it would be nice if we had better Canadian statistics,” and commented that statistics from the U.S. and U.K. are not necessarily representative of the Canadian experience. Although statistics vary, McBain says, “it is clear [SAD] hits young people, international students, and immigrants from sunnier climates” more so than other demographics.

McBain specified that getting adequate light throughout the winter months has been proven clinically to help with SAD.

“The best thing is natural light if you can get it,” he said,  but if unable, “the use of artificial [blue light] sources can help too.” McBain suggests purchasing a “happy light” or light therapy lamp that mimics sunlight to help lessen SAD symptoms.  “The extra bit of light can really help,” he said. There are some conditions that therapy lights can interfere with, so it is best to check with your primary care provider before purchasing. 

McBain urged individuals affected by SAD to resist withdrawing. SAD is no big secret, and keeping it to yourself could amplify symptoms. McBain discussed the fact that “there is a stigma about anything related to unpleasant emotions, and it is unfortunate because [SAD] is a common thing.”

He suggested people attend support groups or share their experiences with SAD with loved ones. In doing so, it is likely you will find you are not alone.

Getting outside, doing something physical, and having fun with winter can be helpful too.

“Winter can be quite enjoyable,” McBain said. “If students have the time and, in some cases, the money, participating in activities like skiing or simply going for a walk around the block is excellent medicine… preferably with friends.”

COVID-19 could make social activities complicated this winter, but finding safe ways to see the ones you love could increase your well-being and is worth the added effort.

According to specific surveys, the happiest countries in the world tend to be Scandinavian. Considering nordic countries lie far above the 49th parallel and are characterized by cold, dark winters, what is going on there?—hygge (pronounced hyoo·guh).

Really, “the Danish word hygge is defined as high-quality social interaction in cozy settings,” says McBain. It’s about making a big deal out of the coziness of winter.

McBains said hygge is something he encourages his patients to focus on throughout the colder months. He explained that there are a handful of things we can appreciate more during winter.

“For example, when do you most enjoy wearing a nice wool sweater or drinking hot chocolate? These things might sound a little lightweight and superficial. Still, suppose you put enough of them together. In that case, you can succeed in making winter more enjoyable for yourself,” McBain said.

If you become skilled at observing hygge, you might even be lucky enough to become one of those people that look forward to winter weather each year.

Cozying up to winter weather could change our perspectives altogether. It is far easier to change our attitudes about the world than to change the world itself. McBain says he likes to help students and patients look at the relationship between their thoughts, behaviours, and attitudes. “There are a lot of things we can do with our [thoughts] and behaviours that influence our moods and attitudes,” he says.

Working to change our perspective about seasonal change can result in us being happier 365 days a year.

McBain noted that in the winter when our energy drops, our motivation can drop too; “Sometimes we become more discouraged about doing the very things that could make us happier… it becomes a kind of paradox. The things that could help us the most become the things we are the least tempted to do.”

McBain says one of the most useful facts to keep in mind is that we can act our way out of sad thoughts and feelings quicker than we can think our way out of sad behaviours. We do not necessarily need to feel motivated to get things done or do the things that will make us feel better in the long run. However, getting started can give us the motivation to continue and can encourage us to do more. Just doing things can help a lot with SAD. 

If looking for further help with seasonal affective disorder, there are numerous resources available to TRU students. Do not be afraid to reach out. To schedule a virtual counselling appointment, send an email to or leave a message at 250-828-5023.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Oct. 28, 2020