Life / Health

From exercise to bright-light therapy, how to fight the seasonal blues

The end of daylight-saving time spells major mood trouble for two to five per cent of Canadians, who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, with an additional 15 per cent getting some degree of the blues.

Less daylight can trigger seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression common during the fall and winter.

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Less daylight can trigger seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression common during the fall and winter.

We’re descending into the damp, dark days of late fall — and they’re about to get darker even earlier, thanks to the end of daylight-saving time.

The change is extremely hard on the two to five per cent of Canadians who suffer seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that roars back at the same time each year, usually in the fall and winter. An additional 15 per cent of us get some degree of blahs, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

Symptoms include feeling sad, worthless and irritable, craving sugary foods and carbohydrates, and an intense desire to socially “hibernate,” said clinical psychologist Katy Kamkar in the Work, Stress and Health Program at CAMH.  

The good news is you can brighten up. Everyone’s different, but the main strategies are following a healthy diet, striking a balance between socializing and staying in, and exercising every day (it doesn’t matter how), Kamkar said.

For those who seasonally struggle to fall asleep at night and drag themselves out of bed in the morning, she suggests getting stressful stuff out of the way earlier in the day, because it can take up to three hours for your brain to settle down for sleep.

Finally, it’s good to work “constructive, goal-oriented, meaningful activities” into your day, every day, Kamkar added. (Yes: You need to make a plan to have fun and stick to it!)  

Bright-light therapy has been shown in studies to help some people with SAD, probably because autumn and winter darkness can throw off the body’s internal clock, altering mood.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, deprivation from natural sources of light is an especially big problem for shift workers and city-dwellers, with their long commutes and cubicle-jockey lifestyles.

In Scandinavia, communities are seeking wider solutions to wintertime sadness. Sweden has been experimenting with installing therapy lamps in bus stops and elementary classrooms. The town of Rjukan, Norway, has installed giant mirrors around its town square to help reflect the paltry winter sunlight down onto the people below.

There's nothing so ambitious afoot in Toronto yet (and to be fair, we're at a lower latitude). For now, "Though it may not be sunny outside, you can still benefit from daylight," by going outside regularly and doing work or reading near a window, Kamkar said.

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