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Why do you feel so SAD in the winter?

Woman walking outside in the winter

Do you ever sense that as winter months kick in, there's a subtle shift in your mood? Perhaps you feel a bit more lethargic, maybe a waning interest in once-exciting activities, or find yourself over-sleeping. If the shorter days and colder temperatures cast a shadow on your well-being, rest assured, you're not alone.  Some attribute it to the "winter blues" or "seasonal depression," but to further validate how you feel, there's also a clinical diagnosis for these feelings—Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Whether you're someone who embraces the winter chill or dreams of a sunnier escape, we’ll unravel the 'why' behind the seasonal blues and explore practical ways to bring warmth and light back into your life.

Are you sad or are you SAD? 

The Canadian Mental Health Association distinguishes between the common "winter blues" and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD, a clinical condition, affects about 2-3% of Canadians with serious depression symptoms during the season. In contrast, the winter blues impact a larger group, with approximately 15% of Canadians experiencing feelings of sadness or unhappiness due to the dark, cold weather. 

A leading theory suggests it is due to shifts in our biological clock. Winter’s shorter days lead to a delay in melatonin production peaks, causing morning grogginess and difficulty waking up. This delayed peak wakefulness can fuel cyclical patterns of insomnia, inadequate sleep, and worsened depressive symptoms.

Notably, women are also up to 8 times more likely to experience SAD with some researchers suggesting the reduced sunlight combined with fluctuating estrogen levels play into inconsistent serotonin production -  the mood regulating hormones. The symptoms of SAD, including fatigue, increased sleep needs, appetite and weight fluctuations, as well as impaired memory and concentration, highlight the multifaceted nature of this condition. 

So what now? 

Numerous strategies exist to tackle SAD symptoms such as light therapy, medication, psychotherapy, and social support. Today, we highlight a cost-free, universally accessible strategy: spending time in nature.

How does spending time in nature help with SAD? 

  • Sunlight and vitamin D: Sunlight is essential for vitamin D production in the body which is normally deficient for Canadians in the winter and more so for those with SAD. When you spend time outside close to nature, even if it’s for 10-15 minutes, it can increase your exposure to sunlight, helping to combat the vitamin D deficiency.

  • Stress reduction: Studies have shown that as little as 20 minutes in the natural environment has a calming effect on the mind — the sights and sounds of nature, such as the crunching of leaves beneath your foot, rustling trees, chirping birds, flowing water, reduces our cortisol levels which is the primary stress hormone.

  • Boosting serotonin levels: Spending time in nature usually involves some sort of physical activity, whether it’d be a gentle walk, bike ride, or snowshoeing, regardless of what you’re doing outside, any form of physical activity can stimulate the release of the mood-boosting chemical in the brain, serotonin. Additionally, the inhalation of phytoncides, which are natural compounds released by trees and plants, can have a calming effect on the nervous system, potentially increasing serotonin production.

  • Mindfulness and relaxation: Exposure to nature also encourages you to be fully present in the moment, observing and appreciating the details in your immediate environment. This actively manages the negative thought patterns associated with SAD and provides a greater sense of inner peace.

  • Social interaction: Share the experience with friends. It’s really easy to hunker down and become anti-social in the winter, but use a nature walk as an excuse to get you and your friends out of the house. Fostering a sense of community is vital for reducing feelings of isolation and depressive symptoms.

Tips for being outside in the winter

Depending on where you are in Canada, you might not have access to a lush green forest in the woods, and we recognize that a nature walk in -20° C weather might not sound like the most appealing activity. However, just remember, we are not suggesting you go for a treacherous multi-day hike or go for a polar dip. Here are some tips to help you get connected with Nature despite the cold: 

  • Bundle up: This is a give-in, you know the drill, hats, gloves, warm layers, just commit and set yourself up for success before you leave the house, your mind and body will thank you for it.

  • Find your version of “nature”: If you are in a city, it might be an urban trail slightly removed from the road with a few shrubs and trees. If you are in the suburbs, it might be a nearby park or riverside. Find your own variation, nature is everywhere!

  • A short time is better than no time: Remember, we’re not suggesting you run a marathon outside, a little time outside is better than none. So if it’s intimidating, start with just a 10 minute walk, then increase it to 15 mins, 20 mins, and then maybe a day activity.

  • Make it fun: There are many winter outdoor activities if a walk around the block doesn’t tickle your fancy: Skiing/snowboarding, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, skating, snowball fights, sledding, hiking, the list goes on and on, you’re bound to find something that clicks with you.

Spending time in nature and utilizing its natural healing properties can reduce stress, enhance overall wellbeing, and can serve as a remedy for alleviating Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms. Incorporating nature time is an effective and cost-efficient treatment for fostering a happier and healthier life, especially during the darker, colder months. Your days can only get brighter from here! 

Our team of compassionate and experienced healthcare professionals can help you navigate this tough season. From educating you on the right things to eat to helping you improve your overall mood we are here to help. Book an appointment with a counsellor or dietitian1.

1. Users must be 16 years or older to access counselling or dietitian appointments. Counselling or dietitian appointments require additional payment of $120 (plus applicable taxes/additional taxes may apply/counselling appointments may require additional taxes). Any payments for appointments must be paid using a valid credit card. An in-app receipt will be provided for you to claim for reimbursement if applicable.