Beating the winter blues as the cold weather sets in

As 10-year-old Carlos Castano exited Toronto Pearson Airport, he was greeted by brisk, Canadian air for the first time in his life. It was a happy moment, as the Colombian-born boy was ready to take on the new adventure of immigrating to Canada with his family. “As a kid, it was exciting to learn a new language, to see a new country, to see snow,” says the now 27-year-old. “Everything we saw on TV about Canada, now we got to experience it.” Unfortunately, while settling into their new home, the Castano family experienced an issue that they hadn’t anticipated: the winter blues; the new environment that Castano once looked forward to experiencing began to take a toll.

Many Canadians experience the winter blues or blahs, where they face symptoms such as low mood, oversleeping, weight gain and feelings of hopelessness. Sometimes it can lead to a form of clinical depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), typically beginning in the fall, lasting through the winter and ending in the spring. About two to three per cent of Canadians are expected to experience the mood disorder in their lifetimes.
“It was really hard,” says Castano, remembering his first encounter with the seasonal blahs during his family’s first Canadian winter. “We wanted to see snow, and it did snow, so that was really exciting. But after that it got to be like, when does it stop? When does the sun come out? When can we take all these clothes off? I started feeling tired. I remember wanting to feel the sun on my skin.”

Why we get SAD
While the exact cause of seasonal mood problems isn’t certain, Dr. Raymond Lam, the associate head for research at the University of British Columbia’s department of psychiatry, says Castano’s situation is in line with current findings. He explains that in countries near the equator, like Colombia, that get lots of sunlight, SAD is very uncommon. But in countries at higher latitudes, like Canada, where there is less and varied sunlight throughout the year, the issue becomes much more prevalent. “Immigrants moving to Canada may start noticing problems in the winter and not realize what’s happening,” says Dr. Lam. “They may think it’s just the immigration, but it might actually be the winter.” Regardless of the circumstances — whether one is struggling with settlement, the winter season or other personal issues — Lam says it’s important that people seek help from their doctor when experiencing depressive symptoms.

Seek support
Hana Pinthus Rotchild, a clinical therapist who specializes in working with immigrants in transition, adds that therapy and counselling can also be very helpful. Therapists can act as an outside confidant and also provide ideas and resources for improvement. When the winter blues hit the Castanos, they sought support from health professionals who provided them with some unique tips. “We had an apartment with a nice balcony door,” Castano recalls. “So one of the helpful things that we used to do is open the blinds, and when the sun would come in through the window … we would put blankets in front of the door, and we would lay there to kind of just get some sun after school.” For those who work long hours and are unable get sun exposure during the shorter days of the year, Lam says that light therapy is an effective alternative. For this technique, individuals get the benefits of brightness by sitting near light boxes for about half an hour a day. “That helps two-thirds of people, even with more severe winter depression, in terms of feeling better during the winter months,” he says.

Enjoy the winter season
For those who don’t have a light device, Pinthus Rotchild tells her clients with SAD symptoms to: “Be curious. Try to learn what Canadian culture has to offer in the wintertime … Go tobogganing. Go cross-country skiing in the forest. Build a snowman. Have warm clothes so you’re not so limited … Meet people, be social, take your kids out in nature. All these activities are very therapeutic.” For Castano, getting involved with winter activities helped significantly. “My parents would take us skating, tobogganing or things like that,” he says. “To sweat a little bit … to kind of get out and do something different, that really helped.” What also assisted in alleviating SAD symptoms was when Castano discovered indoor soccer. Having been an avid player in Colombia, the opportunity to play his favourite sport in the wintertime allowed him to reconnect to something he loved from his birth country, meet new friends and get through the season. “I didn’t know about indoor soccer because back home we don’t have the bubbles and domes to play in,” he says. “That helped a lot, too, to be able to play all year round.”

Today, Castano continues to play soccer throughout the winter. He also skis often, plans to learn to snowboard and is looking forward to an upcoming winter trip to a snowy mountain in Quebec. While he still feels the winter blues from time to time, Castano says that his life in Canada has certainly met the expectations he had when he stepped out of the Toronto airport 17 years ago. “I love Canada,” he says. “I’ve learned to like — not love — winter, but I wouldn’t want to live in any other country.”


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