Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Helpful tips including a reader favourite: the U of A library rents out light therapy lamps!

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Have you ever felt low energy in the winter months? Perhaps even having difficulty concentrating, or lowered interest in things you typically enjoy?

It’s not unfamiliar for many students to wake up before sunrise and return home after sundown. It’s a tough grind during the winter months when sunlight always seems out of reach and the temperature only keeps dropping. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a common condition among people who live in higher latitudes with a lengthy winter season.

I recall the early days when my family immigrated to Canada. I was initially very fond of snow and enjoyed winter sports throughout elementary school. However, my enthusiasm for winter was short-lived. In my teenage years I began to feel less energetic and unmotivated starting in November. While I felt lively and productive during the summer months, every winter I would retreat from my social circles and wake up feeling bleaker than usual. More often than not, I would find myself incessantly snacking in the winter months and suddenly gaining a few extra pounds. While friends and family would laugh it off saying that it was just a “Canadian condition” or “hibernation symptoms,” I knew there must be some ways to help resolve my symptoms that lasted for more than four months of the year. It was not going to go away on its own. It was not until I began pharmacy school that I realized there were various ways to cope with SAD.

Light therapy

After many years of coping with the same repetitive experiences, I decided to take action. While simple, some of these changes in my routine made a large impact on my life. One treatment method was called light therapy. Initially, I was skeptical — how could artificial light be the solution to my physical and psychological well-being? When I finally decided to invest in a “happy light” (as the psychologists called it), I found that just 30 minutes of having this bright lamp at my desk helped improve my mood gradually. The light is unlike any lamp you’ve owned, it is incredibly bright light (10,000 lux brightness) and can be purchased online or in discount department stores. The University of Alberta Library has seven light therapy lamps available to rent for one hour at a time — you can pick them up from the reserve desk at seven locations.

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Photo courtesy @uofalibrary


In the first few years of my degree, I was averse to exercise in the winter, particularly when I had to brace the blizzard outside to walk to the gym every day. The barriers seemed too high and my motivation was at an all-time low during these months, which was a recipe for non-commitment. Recently, after much peer pressure and learning that exercise could be a potential therapy for SAD, I decided to create my first-ever gym schedule. That’s right. A gym schedule. Without penciling in the time during my day dedicated to exercise, it was hard as a full-time student to make it a reality. Once I did it, I found that even 30 minutes of moderate exercise three times a week would transform my energy levels. The hardest part was getting started, but after the first day on the treadmill, the following days became easier.


While the previous two options worked for me, for others who have coped with SAD longer or have been impacted to a greater degree, counselling can be an option. Specialists can help re-frame thought patterns and promote positive behaviors for students to better cope with SAD. One of the important lessons I’ve learned throughout my degree is to utilize the resources both on and off-campus to help meet my needs. Moreover, being honest about my experiences with my family and friends have helped open conversations.

Many excellent resources exist on campus to help students combat SAD and other mental health related concerns: