Nyk Morrigan deals with seasonal affective disorder each winter. Here’s what it feels like

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As the days get shorter in the fall and into the winter, Nyk Morrigan feels the lethargy, anxiety and sadness ramp up in day-to-day life.

Morrigan first remembers feeling the changes that came with winter when Morrigan was 23. Doctors prescribed medication but they weren’t the right fit. Turns out, Morrigan, now 39, was – and still is – grappling with seasonal affective disorder or SAD.

“If you can imagine a blanket that’s completely soaked in water and heavy and putting that over your shoulders and trying to pull it every day,” Morrigan told Global News.

“A blanket is used to protect ourselves and when it’s weighed down … for a lot of people with SAD, it’s about the heaviness and the darkness. It’s essentially a form of depression,” Morrigan said.

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Between October and into February, the Port Hope, Ont.-native feels irritable, stressed, and has trouble getting up in the morning. Morrigan spends less time outdoors and with friends and family.

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In some parts of Canada, last month was one of the darkest Januarys on record. As winter drags on, those grappling with the lack of sunlight and shorter days can feel changes in their health and mood.

Seasonal depression, the “winter blues,” and seasonal affective disorder are all concerns that may seep in during this time of the year, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.

There’s no confirmed cause to explain why some people encounter SAD, but it’s thought to be tied to changes in our “biological internal clock” in the brain and how our circadian rhythms are regulated.

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We’re alert when the sun shines, but sleep when our world is in darkness. When seasonal changes happen throughout the year, our bodies have trouble adjusting.

SAD can be hard to diagnose because the symptoms overlap with other types of conditions like depression and bipolar disorder. Some warning flags, however, include:

  • Change in appetite, in particular a craving for sweet or starchy foods
  • Weight gain
  • Decreased energy
  • Fatigue
  • Tendency to oversleep
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Feelings of anxiety and despair

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SAD affects between two and three per cent of the general population. Another 15 per cent of Canadians encounter a less severe experience called the “winter blues.” It tends to begin in people over the age of 20 and the risk increases with age, according to the CMHA. It’s also more common in women than in men.

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There are ways to ease the symptoms, too. Visiting your family doctor for professional help is a good start. People with mild symptoms should make time to get outdoors during the day to make sure they get a dose of sunlight. Exercise helps to relieve stress, build energy and increase your mental and physical well-being.

Others turn to a winter vacation to a sunny destination while the most common treatment is exposure to a bright artificial light or “light therapy.”

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Morrigan has learned to live with the condition and even takes up tactics to avoid falling into sadness. You can take up writing in your journal, going outdoors alone or with just a friend for a coffee or getting out and shovelling the driveway, Morrigan suggests.

“Anything that moves you in a forward momentum is a positive thing. I just know that it’s coming and acknowledge it exists and accept the challenges to come,” Morrigan said.

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Get help, too. Talk to friends on the phone, call a counsellor or turn to a family member to talk through your problems, Morrigan suggested.

Where to get help

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

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The Canadian Association for Suicide PreventionDepression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868  all offer ways for getting help if you, or someone you know, is suffering from mental health issues.

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