How to Cope with Seasonal Depression?

Roxanne Bélanger
Written by Roxanne Bélanger /

Living in Canada or northern regions inevitably means experiencing recurring seasonal changes that bring both minor and major disruptions to our daily lives. Who better than us, fellow Quebecois and Quebecoises, to know that the end of one season and the start of another is a transitional period that requires our bodies and minds to adapt?

The most challenging seasons to navigate are probably autumn and winter. Indeed, a study conducted in Canada by Patten (2017) shows a higher proportion of depressive episodes during the months of December, January, and February. In fact, the proportion in January was 70% higher than in August, which is quite significant! The colder seasons bring the end of vacations, shorter days, cold weather, an increased risk of illness, and sometimes a more challenging daily routine due to winter temperatures (such as snow removal), greater challenges when driving, and fewer events (e.g., music festivals). This also leads to a decrease in outdoor activities, which can result in a reduction in social interactions.

So, with all of these factors, it's understandable to feel less motivated and more tired. In addition to the elements mentioned above, science tells us that several factors may account for this decrease in energy and mood: genetics, melatonin (related to light), neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, certain psychological aspects, and personality traits like temperament, etc. (Lam and Levitt, 1999) If you wish to delve deeper into this topic, you can consult the Canadian Consensus Guidelines for the Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder, which explains these causes very well.

There is, however, a major factor that may have a much more significant influence than others: our exposure to light, which would subsequently affect our circadian rhythm (Lam and Levitt, 1999). The circadian rhythm, in short, is our 24-hour internal clock that guides our body to tell it what time of day it is and then synchronizes our internal functions. This rhythm plays a significant role in regulating our sleep/wake cycle, among other things. Even though science leans towards the hypothesis of light exposure to largely explain seasonal depression, the exact cause remains uncertain.

What Can I Do to Get Through Seasonal Depression?

Nevertheless, there are numerous actions you can take daily to mitigate the negative impacts of the transition to the colder seasons. The number one solution, backed by scientific literature (Blehar and Lewy, 1990; Lam et al., 1989b; Rosenthal et al., 1988b; Tam et al., 1995; Wesson and Levitt, 1998), is light therapy. This involves daily exposure to light of a certain intensity, typically in the morning. For example, you could work at your desk with a 5,000 lux light in front of you for 45 to 60 minutes. However, before attempting this method, I strongly recommend discussing it with a healthcare professional, as some contraindications exist. You can find additional information about this on the University of British Columbia's website.

Aside from light therapy, the first thing to do, in my opinion, is to allow yourself the time to go through the seasonal transition period. Allowing time means giving your body the opportunity to adapt at its own pace, but it also means being understanding towards yourself and not blaming yourself for being less active during this period. Treat yourself with the same kindness as you would a dear friend going through a tough time. Then you can try incorporating the following tips into your daily life (these tips apply in all seasons):

  • Spend some outside and breathe in fresh air daily;
  • Open your curtains and expose yourself to natural daylight;
  • Try to move a bit every day (e.g., do some stretches or go for a short walk), even just for five minutes; it makes a significant difference;
  • Find one or more activities you enjoy during this season. Autumn is the perfect time for hiking, while winter offers opportunities like snowshoeing or building an igloo in the snow. Indoor sports are also a good option (badminton, swimming, martial arts);
  • Make space for activities that make you feel good, such as painting, watching movies, reading, etc. (applicable in all seasons);
  • Take this time to let your mind wander and plan activities for the upcoming summer or future trips;
  • Aim to have social interactions every week. This generally has a positive impact on well-being, mood, and energy levels.

Last but not least, stay attentive to how you feel. Autumn and winter are the seasons with the highest risk of developing seasonal depression. So, if you experience depressive symptoms (loss or increase of appetite, insomnia or increased sleep, depressed mood, etc.), or if you simply feel depressed, especially if it lasts for more than two weeks, it's important to reach out to your doctor or mental health services to discuss it.

Despite the shorter days and the end of vacations, I eagerly await the autumn colours! How about you? Will you take the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful orange landscapes that will surely bring us all a bit of warmth?

Roxanne Bélanger

B.ed, MBA

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