Blue Monday: What to know about seasonal affective disorder amid 'most depressing day of the year'

While Blue Monday started as a gimmick, it rings true in cold places like Canada.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

While Blue Monday started as a gimmick, it rings true in cold places like Canada. (Getty)
While Blue Monday started as a gimmick, it rings true in cold places like Canada. (Getty)

As the winter chill deepens and the skies take on a perpetual gray hue, many Canadians find themselves struggling with seasonal affective disorder.

Blue Monday — the "most depressing day of the year" — is looming on the horizon, and it's important to know how to navigate the emotional challenges that accompany this season.

According to the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), "there is no scientific basis for why the third Monday in January has been deemed Blue Monday," adding it started as a marketing gimmick by a travel company.

But, it caught on because in Canada, it rings true. "Daylight is at a premium, nights are long and cold, holiday bills are arriving, and most of us are the furthest away we can be from the next thing to look forward to," the agency explained.

The CBC recently reported December saw "record amounts of fog and rain" in Toronto. "The thing that was missing this year was the sun," according to Environment Canada climatologist David Phillips, as quoted by the CBC. The broadcaster reported "days likely won't be getting a whole lot brighter this winter. Drizzly, grey weather is expected to continue through January and February."

This means the start of 2024 could be a "tough time" for those struggling with seasonal affective disorder.

Data from 2020 suggests about 15 per cent of Canadians experience "winter blues" — a mild form of the disorder — whereas another two-to-three per cent are severely affected.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a medical condition that affects individuals during certain times of the year — particularly when the weather gets colder and the days get shorter.

SAD can impact your quality of life and can hinder your ability to build a sustainable routine throughout the year. Although it's not curable, individuals can find ways to manage living with the disorder.

Here's what you need to know.

What is seasonal affective disorder and what are the symptoms?

Middle aged woman sleeping on a bed at home in the dark.
Excessive sleeping and lack of energy are symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. (Photo via Getty Images)

SAD is a form of depression that affects people on a seasonal basis. This is particularly true when the weather turns colder and the days get shorter.

Although many individuals experience "the winter blues," a smaller percentage of people are diagnosed with SAD.

During the winter, people with the blues may want to be at home more often. They may also want to participate in activities they would usually do in the summer.

However, individuals with SAD may experience the following symptoms:

  • Feeling sad and depressed

  • Sleeping excessively

  • Loss of energy and increased feelings of fatigue

  • Appetite changes

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Feeling indifferent towards personal interests and hobbies

  • Suicidal ideation

Who does seasonal affective disorder affect?

Like clinical depression, factors including your family history, biological characteristics and your psychological background can impact whether or not you are prone to developing SAD.

However, it is more common for young women to develop the condition.

When is seasonal affective disorder most prevalent?

snow on the ground in a park at night with footprints.
Seasonal affective disorder is most prevalent during the fall and winter when it's colder, the days are shorter, and there is less daylight. (Photo via Getty Images)

SAD is most prevalent during the fall and winter when it's colder, the days are shorter, and there is less daylight.

Experts believe these factors may stimulate a chemical change in your brain that causes individuals to experience temporary depressive symptoms.

How to alleviate symptoms of seasonal affective disorder

Living with seasonal affective disorder isn't easy, but there are ways to cope with the condition. There are also ways prevent SAD from impacting your quality of life during the colder months.

Consider the following methods to help alleviate SAD symptoms.

1. Use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

As SAD is a form of depression, it will need to be diagnosed by a licensed medical professional.

Like clinical depression, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help individuals experiencing SAD develop skills to cope with the disorder.

In fact, CBT has been proven to have the most enduring effects for SAD.

2. Undergo light therapy

A study published by the National Library of Medicine determined that light therapy effectively reduced symptoms of SAD.

Light therapy is a method of coping with SAD that involves sitting in front of a light box for half an hour a day in order to activate your hypothalamus and restore your circadian rhythm.

The light must be made to treat SAD and have a brightness of at least 10,000 lux to be effective.

Light therapy is a common treatment for a variety of conditions, from auto-immune disorders like psoriasis and eczema, to wound healing, to depression and seasonal affective disorder, to circadian rhythm sleep disorders
Light therapy has been proven to effectively reduced symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. (Photo via Getty Images)

3. Go outside as much as possible

Although it's significantly less appealing during the winter, experts suggest going outside during the day to combat symptoms of SAD.

This allows your body to soak up as much daylight as possible while also moving your body. If you're inside, you can also sit near a window to get some benefits of sunlight absorption.

4. Exercise

Exercise is an effective way of combating the symptoms of SAD. This is because it helps your body release endorphins, regulate sleep, increase metabolism and reduce anxiety.

Try aerobic exercises such as walking, running and dancing. Gentle activities like yoga, swimming and stretching are also beneficial.

5. Consider antidepressants

Not everyone requires antidepressants to treat SAD, but many people benefit from this method.

Because SAD is a form of depression, commonly prescribed antidepressants can work to combat your symptoms.

Consult with your health provider or a doctor if you're interested in pursuing antidepressants as a treatment option.

person working out in green tights with a kettlebell in a gym.
Exercise is an effective way of combating the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. (Photo via Getty Images)

6. Head south

Although moving is not an option for everyone, individuals with SAD may benefit from living somewhere warmer and with more sunlight during the winter.

The bottom line

Nearly three per cent of Canadians are expected to be diagnosed with SAD every year, which makes up roughly 10 per cent of all diagnosed cases of depression.

Canadians are particularly at risk because the country's distance from the equator results in shorter, colder winter days.

If you have SAD, you may want to consider some of the above methods to cope with the condition. Talk to your doctor or healthcare provider to determine what approach works best for you.

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