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Coping With Seasonal Affective Disorder During COVID-19

seasonal affective disorder

With the end of daylight saving time, daylight arrives earlier in the morning while darkness falls earlier in the day. For many people, this stretch of shortened days, extended nights and colder weather triggers a condition called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Combined with all the uncertainty connected to the state of the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic, seasonal affective disorder season could be more difficult than usual this year. As such, people with the disorder should take extra proactive steps in their self-care this year, since pandemic conditions may increase the severity of their symptoms.

What Is SAD?

SAD is a depressive disorder caused by the onset of certain seasons. Experts believe shortened days and less daylight set off a chemical change in the brain that leads to symptoms of depression in people with the disorder.

Common symptoms include:

  • Excessive sleep and daytime drowsiness
  • Feelings of sadness, guilt and hopelessness
  • Loss of interest and pleasure in activities normally enjoyed
  • Anxiety and grouchiness
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased appetite, especially for sweets and carbs, and associated weight gain

Of the two main types of SAD – fall-onset and spring-onset – fall-onset SAD is much more common. Symptoms of fall-onset SAD, also called winter depression, start in the late fall or early winter months and usually go away during the summer months.

The American Psychiatric Association reports that approximately 5 percent of U.S. adults have SAD, and that the duration of the disorder is usually about 40 percent of the year. SAD affects four times as many women as men.

SAD and the Pandemic

With the ongoing pandemic, stresses and concerns related to continued social distancing/isolation, job loss, economic uncertainty, and our health and the health of our loved ones can affect anyone. As a result, no one is immune to experiencing symptoms of depression, heightened anxiety, and even feelings of hopelessness and despair at this distressing time.

In helping people with SAD, medical experts still stress the importance of using the tried-and-true conventional (and often very effective) treatments for the disorder, namely:

  • Increased exposure to sunlight, including spending time outside or near a window
  • Light therapy, in which a person sits or works near a light therapy box, a device that emits bright levels of light to mimic natural sunlight. This is best done in the mornings for only 20 to 40 minutes, so consult your provider for guidance.
  • Psychotherapy, including cognitive-behavioral and interpersonal therapeutic approaches
  • Antidepressants, at a doctor’s recommendation

In addition, the broader doctor-recommended advice for anyone suffering from symptoms of depression during the pandemic, whether seasonally triggered or otherwise, can help individuals diagnosed with SAD. These suggestions include:

Stay Connected to Other People

Don’t let social distancing stop you from nurturing relationships with friends and family. Phone calls, video chats, social media and even texting can help you feel socially connected and less lonely or isolated.

Focus on the Positive

Distract yourself from negative thoughts by shifting your mental focus, whenever possible, to things that bring meaning and pleasure to your life. For example, try reading that book you keep putting off, enrolling in an online class or taking up a new hobby.

Maintain a Daily Routine

Structuring your days can create a sense of satisfaction and predictability in these unpredictable times. Moreover, as we know that poor sleep quality is a significant contributing factor to depression, maintaining a daily routine can do much to improve poor sleep or maintain good sleep quality.

Get Regular Exercise

Regular exercise positively affects brains chemistry and mood. If COVID-19 restrictions prevent you from visiting your favorite gym, you can still do weight/resistance training, body weight exercises and yoga at home, as well as walk or run in your neighborhood. What’s more, outdoor exercise is doubly beneficial for people with SAD due to the sunlight exposure. Remember: We receive beneficial light from the sun even when the sky is overcast. Morning exercise may also help keep your circadian rhythms more balanced.

Eat Healthy

Steer away from “comfort foods” filled with sugar, unhealthy fats, and refined carbs, as those foods, along with excessive amounts of alcohol and caffeine, can adversely affect mood. Instead, try to eat more fresh, wholesome foods and increase intake of mood-improving nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids. Also, consider taking a vitamin D supplement, as reduced exposure to sunlight depletes this vitamin, which plays a role in mood health.

A number of therapies, medications, and behavioral modifications can be used to effectively manage SAD symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, keep in mind that the symptoms of other mental health conditions may be nearly identical to those of SAD. Always visit a healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis.

Related Links

University Hospitals offer comprehensive evaluation, diagnosis and inpatient and outpatient treatment of psychiatric illness for adults, adolescents, children and older adults through programs that apply the most advanced diagnostic and therapeutic techniques available. Learn more about psychiatry and psychology services at University Hospitals.