Ask an Expert: What to do when you’ve got those winter blues?

Dr. Edwin Tam offers tips for getting over post-holiday and winter blahs.

Q: I’m feeling down after months of grey skies and rain.  Is exposure to sunlight connected to my mood?
A: The brain uses bright light to set the body clock. It can also register the change of seasons by sensing how late the sun rises or how long the days are. Some depressed patients show a seasonal pattern to their mood worsening with less light. One likely neurotransmitter involved is serotonin, which fluctuates with the seasons and influences mood.

Q: What can I do to get through the post-holiday blues?
A: If it’s mainly due to let down because the holidays are over, then one way would be to fill the void left by the end of the festivities. Socializing, exercising, taking up new interests or hobbies, and pursuing your passions would be healthy ways of starting the New Year.

Q: People often attribute their bad moods on a glum January day to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). What is SAD and how is it different from the typical post-holiday winter blues?
A: SAD is subtype of depression, which means it is a syndrome that is persistent (lasts longer than 2 weeks), pervasive (multiple areas of life affected such as mood, interest, appetite, sleep, energy, concentration, self-esteem, sense of guilt, movement and will to live) and problematic (affecting function or causing significant distress). Most post-holiday winter blues only last a few days and aren’t as severe, whereas SAD is more severe and lasts throughout the fall and winter.

Q: How can SAD be treated?
A: Lifestyle changes such as getting more outdoor light (especially in the mornings), exercising, and reducing stress can help milder cases. Bright light therapy with a light box or light book in the mornings can treat more severe cases of SAD. You can also talk to your family doctor about antidepressants, which might help.

Q: Will using tanning beds help alleviate my SAD?
A: Light therapy most likely works through the eyes. Most tanning beds involve covering up the eyes, so would not work for SAD.

Q: If I think I have seasonal depression or SAD, what resources are available and whom should I talk to?
A: Start by going to your family doctor for a check-up, as many physical illnesses can present with depressive symptoms (e.g. anemia, thyroid problems). If physical causes are ruled out, and it’s determined that you have clinical depression with a seasonal pattern, then you can discuss best treatment options with your family doctor.

The Mood Disorders Centre at UBC Hospital also offers more information about SAD that might be helpful. You can obtain a light box without a prescription, but we would advise being followed by a doctor during your treatment to deal with possible side effects and complications.

Q: How common are seasonal depression and SAD in Canada?
We estimate that 1% to 3% of the general population have SAD based on studies done in Ontario. Another 15% of people have subsyndromal SAD (aka the “winter blues” or “winter blahs”) which is similar to SAD, but is not classified as clinical depression.

Right now, our research team at the Mood Disorders Centre is studying how well light therapy works for non-seasonal depression.



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