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Don't be SAD

Don't be SAD

December 18, 2009

Exercise, daylight and companionship can chase the winter blues away

Mason Davies says people in High Level get a little down during the long, cold winter.

“It can get pretty gloomy,” he says.

About this time of year, the sun comes up between 9 and 10 a.m. and sets between 3 and 4 p.m., meaning the northern Alberta town, located 800 km north of Edmonton, gets a scant five to seven hours of sunlight a day.

Davies admits the lack of light saps his spirit.

“I feel much more upbeat during the spring and summer,” he says. “When it’s warm and sunny, you definitely feel more energetic.”

The winter blahs affect many people, not just those living in northern areas.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is most common during the fall and winter, in particular during December, January and February.

As seasons change, the biological internal clocks in our brains (which regulate our circadian rhythm) shift, throwing off the 24-hour cycle our lives are normally based on.

The classic symptoms of SAD are sleep changes—especially the need to sleep more—unduly negative thoughts and a combination of low energy and motivation.

“All of those symptoms together can be pretty insidious,” says Raymond Gunter, a provisional clinical psychologist at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary.

“When you combine sleeping late with negative thinking and low motivation, pretty soon the urge to not get out of bed and stay home from work can be pretty powerful. It can become a self-defeating cycle.”
Gunter says going outside is the best way to deal with SAD.

“To combat mild cases of SAD, really good advice is to combine exercise and exposure to light,” Gunter says. “For the average person, just getting outdoors for a decent chunk of time each day can be quite beneficial. Adding 20 minutes of mild exercise like walking is even better.”

Trish Smith, a mental health therapist for Alberta Health Services in Grande Prairie, says if you can’t go outside, at least do things you enjoy with people you like.

“A lot of times when it’s cold and dark outside and people start to feel depressive, they isolate themselves,” she says. “People end up feeling less and less motivated and they end up doing less of the things they enjoy.”

Smith says SAD lights, specially designed lamps that replicate the affects of sunlight, are another option for people feeling down during the dark winter months. These lights are available at retail and are used for light therapy at several AHS facilities.