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What should I do if I have SAD? Expert tips to beat seasonal affective disorder this winter

Dr. Gillian Mandich, a happiness researcher and expert, offers several tips to beat the winter blues.

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.

Around 15 per cent of Canadians will report a mild case of SAD in their lifetimes. (Photo via Getty Images)
Around 15 per cent of Canadians will report a mild case of SAD in their lifetimes. (Photo via Getty Images)

With the holiday season having ended and fierce winter weather causing a mess in Canada, keeping your spirits lifted throughout the rest of the season might be a difficult task. And while the days are gradually getting longer since the Winter solstice on Dec. 21 and Daylight Savings Time is soon set to return on March 10, you may wonder why you feel a bit more down than usual.

Blue Monday falls on Jan. 14 in 2024, and it's considered to be the most depressing day of the year. While there haven't been any scientific studies confirming this claim and we should be thinking of our mental health year-round, it's no secret many people are feeling in the slumps.

For some Canadians, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) might be something to look into during the colder months. In fact, around 15 per cent of people in the country will report at least a mild case of SAD in their lifetime, according to the Canadian Psychological Association, with two to three per cent reporting serious cases.

But what exactly is SAD, and are there any ways you can beat it? Yahoo Canada recently talked to a happiness expert based in the Greater Toronto Area to get her top tips on beating the winter blues this year.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs during the same season each year, usually in the fall and winter months, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. But in some cases, some people may even experience season-linked symptoms in the summer.

What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

In Canada, there is a higher prevalence of SAD because of the decreased hours of daylight seen in the winter months.

Spending time outdoors wearing heavy layers of clothing also limits our skin's natural exposure to sunlight during winter. This lack of sunlight can impact the body's circadian rhythms, as well as important mood-boosting neurotransmitters and hormones like serotonin and melatonin.

There's also a risk of developing SAD if you have a family history of any form of depression, the Canadian Psychological Association notes.

The good news? With some key lifestyle choices, you can bust many of the effects of the winter blues, according to happiness researcher Dr. Gillian Mandich.

Photo via Dr Gillian Mandich
Photo via Dr Gillian Mandich

How to beat Seasonal Affective Disorder this winter

Light exposure

Many studies have shown that light can be very helpful in treating winter depression, although Mandich recognizes it can often be difficult because of the shortened days. Getting outside is considered the best way to get light exposure, even on cloudy days.

Aim for even for 10 to 20 minutes a day, and try to let as much natural light in your home or office as you can. Alternatively, you can consider investing in a light box as a supplement.

This sunlight therapy lamp can help boost your mood this winter. 

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Create a positive environment

Humans are highly influenced by those around them, which includes the people they interact with as well as the characters they watch on TV or the podcasters they hear. With this in mind, try doing an audit of the content you consume on a daily basis, from who you follow on social media, to the shows you turn on after work. Little things like wearing bright clothing can also have an impact on your mood, helping you feel happier.

Embrace the season

As a seasonal nation, Canadians can be better at embracing the positives that come with each of our seasons and finding ways to enjoy them instead of wishing them away. Mandich recalls a ski instructor once telling her "there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad dressing" — which is why having proper winter gear is crucial to an enjoyable time spent in the cold.

While many winter sports can be expensive, finding an affordable winter hobby like hiking or sledding can help people see the fun in the winter season. Plus, if you combine outdoor activities with spending time socializing, it can also help combat loneliness and boost your happiness levels further.

These stylish winter boots also keep feet warm and dry.

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Enjoy outdoor activities this winter, like sledding. 

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Exercise reduces levels of stress hormones in the body and increases the production of endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain known to be mood elevators. Even 20 minutes of gentle, enjoyable exercise can boost both your immune system and mood, Mandich notes, both of which are critical during the winter months.

Walking is a great way to get light exposure, exercise, take in a positive environment and embrace the fresh winter air — all in one. Plus, the mood benefits of exercise can last up to 12 hours.

Add these weighted bangles to your wrists or ankles for extra resistance. 

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Get moving on an indoor or outdoor walk this winter.

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Mandich notes while these are key tips to create a positive and happy life, it is crucial to remember it's not possible for people to be happy every single day. While it can be daunting to think about major actions to make yourself happy, try to focus on one thing a day to make yourself happy. Additionally, she notes the frequency of small happy moments is actually better than less frequent but more intense happy moments.

While you can't simply "choose" happiness, the daily steps you take can have a massive impact on your overall state of mind, and when put into practice, can help cultivate a truly happy life.

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