Susceptible to seasonal depression? There are ways to get ahead of it

It’s getting cold and dark out. Finding ways to remain connected with nature and exposed to sunlight can help your mental health.

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The bad news is the days are getting shorter and colder, signalling the impending arrival of another ruthless Montreal winter — a time dreaded by many. The good news is there are several things you can do to get ahead of symptoms of seasonal depression if you’re one to experience them.

It’s all about finding ways to continue prioritizing what’s essential for overall health, says a Montreal guidance counsellor and psychotherapist, as access to these things is naturally more restricted in the winter.

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The Montreal Therapy Centre’s Christina Koufoudakis suggests seven pillars of health to achieve holistic wellness at any given time: movement, mental rest, nutrition, nature, sleep, sunlight and gratitude.

“These seven pillars emerged from research that was done on the healthiest people in the world and the people who have healed themselves from all kinds of ailments, mental and physical, that they were told would be chronic,” she said.

“It kind of gives us a bit more of an insight into seasonal depression, because we can see how it’s harder to get some of those pillars accomplished in the colder months, when the sunlight is scarcer and we don’t have as much access to nature.”

This is an infographic listing the seven pillars of health: movement, mental rest, nutrition, nature, sleep, sunlight, and gratitude.

Seasonal depression affects an estimated two to three per cent of Canadians, with up to 15 per cent reporting symptoms without actually getting a diagnosis, according to Dr. Gabriella Gobbi, professor of psychiatry at McGill University and Canada Research Chair in therapeutics for mental health.

“(It’s) a kind of mood disorder, it’s a kind of depression that appears mostly during the winter and is characterized by symptoms of depression. In particular, there is a lot of fatigue, insomnia … incapacity to start to do new projects, sadness,” Gobbi said. “We can have a very severe form of seasonal affective disorder; we can have also suicidal behaviour.”

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In addition to being restricted from the pillars of health during the winter, Koufoudakis pointed out it can be a lonelier time in general: people tend to be more isolated, which can lead to dark thoughts.

“A lot of people have developmental trauma from their childhoods around the holiday time,” she said, “so there’s a lot of that as well, and I think compounded with the seven pillars, you kind of have this perfect storm, this recipe for malaise.”

She believes it’s possible the number of people who suffer symptoms is a lot higher than reported, even if some don’t realize they’re experiencing them.

“It’s quite prevalent,” she said. “What comes up in the research more so than an age bracket … is really certain risk factors, like if you’ve recently lost a spouse or partner, having chronic conditions … living alone or feeling lonely … financial instability, and then being female, but that can be kind of a socialized thing because women tend to report these things more and seek help more.”

Gobbi said those who deal with depression, bipolar disorder or other mental health conditions are also more susceptible to being affected by the change of seasons. But both she and Koufoudakis say being proactive heading into the colder, darker months can help.

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“You have to do everything to prevent,” Gobbi said.

A woman in a white sweater is sitting on a red couch with a boston terrier beside her. both face the camera.
Christina Koufoudakis with her dog, Walter, on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. “Pets and animals can be major contributors to the mental rest, nature and gratitude pillars, and can of course remedy loneliness,” she said. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

So, what does prevention look like?

“Definitely go outside whenever it’s tolerable to do so, any time the sun comes out,” Koufoudakis said. “We should be going out there to try and get some on our face. … Studies have shown that when you go outside and the sun is out first thing in the morning, that really kickstarts your melatonin cycle and helps with sleep.

“Even if it’s cold, walking in nature in the snow is very recharging.”

In the absence of sunlight, lamps that mimic it can help, Koufoudakis and Gobbi said.

“They sort of mimic that experience of being out in the sunlight and getting that recharge from the sun,” Koufoudakis said. “Some people will say, ‘Oh, it’s a gimmick,’ but it’s an attitude thing, too, right? If you see the value and you buy into this, it’s going to have a more powerful effect on your wellness for sure.”

Making sure you’re getting enough sleep is also imperative. To maximize exposure to daylight, you could try shifting your sleeping schedule to wake up earlier.

“To the extent that it’s possible for people, that would be ideal, because we did evolve to wake up with the sun,” Koufoudakis said. “We evolved to live outside, which is why a lot of us are struggling in this modern day. Our brains did not evolve to look at screens.”

And, of course, if you aren’t already, following the remaining pillars — outside of those restricted by the colder months — will help, too.

Koufoudakis said she has seen her clients take ownership of their health this way. It’s all about taking it one step at a time, especially if you’re really struggling, and being kind and patient with yourself, she said.

“You have to just try,” Koufoudakis said. “I’ll tell clients — if they’re really on the lower end of functionality — we’re not going to attack these all at once, let’s start with one: sleep. That’s probably the most important one. And there’s tons of tips and things you can do to improve the quality of your sleep, and that alone can kind of propel you into the next phase of your wellness. ‘Oh, I have a bit more energy, maybe we can try the nature thing, even though there’s a blizzard.’”

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