Tackling Seasonal Affective Disorder in the Midst of a Pandemic
Written by Samra Karamustafic
Find out how you can alleviate the effects of seasonal affective disorder this winter season — even during a pandemic.
What comes to mind when you think of the winter season? Is it cups of hot cocoa, Christmas music on the radio, or streets lined with twinkling white lights and colorful decorations?
Or is it a time of fatigue, sluggishness, and minimal to no exposure to sunlight?
While many of us anticipate the joy of the holiday season the moment that November 1st rolls around, others prepare themselves for the inevitable end of Daylight Savings Time, which means shorter days and the possible onslaught of seasonal affective disorder. But what exactly is seasonal affective disorder?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, seasonal affective disorder, also known as “seasonal depression” or “SAD”, is a type of depression where the individual experiences mood and behavioral changes when the seasons change. There are two different types of SAD: winter-pattern and summer-pattern SAD. As you can tell by the name, symptoms of winter-pattern SAD typically begin in late fall or early winter and go away during the spring or summer; with summer-pattern SAD (which is less common) individuals begin experiencing symptoms in late spring or early summer, which then end in the fall.
The disorder has garnered more attention in the past few years, especially among teens and young adults on various social media platforms such as Twitter and YouTube. It’s not uncommon to see your favorite YouTuber posting a video about their tried-and-true tips to manage SAD or to see memes about users suffering from SAD the moment that Daylight Savings ends. In fact, according to the Cleveland Clinic, approximately half a million people in the U.S. suffer from winter seasonal affective disorder. With that being said, roughly 10 to 20% suffer from the “winter blues”, which is a milder form of winter SAD. Doctors and researchers have yet to find the exact cause of this disorder, but there are three main theories that the Cleveland Clinic outlines on their website:
Many believe that SAD can be set off by changes in the availability of sunlight, especially for individuals who are particularly vulnerable to such changes. Some doctors and researchers believe that due to the lessened exposure to sunlight, a person’s internal biological clock — the one that regulates hormones, sleep, and mood — shifts. Thus, someone with SAD would encounter irregular sleeping patterns and mood changes.
Is SAD caused by a change in our brain chemicals? Possibly. Some doctors theorize that our neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, could be altered in people diagnosed with SAD. However, they believe that light therapy can correct these alterations.
The lack of sunlight in the winter months could mean an increased production of melatonin in people with SAD, which could explain the fatigue and sluggishness, both of which are common symptoms of the disorder.
Seasonal depression doesn’t just cause a person to be sad and sluggish, however. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) notes that SAD is not a separate disorder per se, but rather a type of depression. This means that many of the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder align with symptoms of major depression, including:
Feeling depressed nearly every day
Losing interest in any activities or hobbies that you once enjoyed
Changes in weight or appetite
Irritability and more.
Winter pattern SAD has a few specific symptoms as well, like:
Overeating, with a particular craving for carbohydrates (think: your favorite holiday treats)
Social withdrawal, which the NIMH alludes to as a sort of “hibernation’”
However, this year in particular poses a greater challenge to people with SAD: the coronavirus pandemic. What the New York Times calls a “double whammy”, the daily stresses of the coronavirus pandemic this winter season could easily intensify seasonal depression for many individuals.
In her interview with the New York Times, Dr. Kelly Rohan, a professor of psychological science at the University of Vermont, notes, “People will be limited in what they can do to stay well even if they normally have good coping resources.” For instance, if you’ve dealt with SAD in the past by going out for a cup of coffee with a few friends every once in a while, that may not be as feasible as it once was. Or, if you’ve always been an avid gym-goer when you felt the effects of SAD, that may change depending on the route that this pandemic will take regarding possible closures.
On the bright side, there is a light at the end of the tunnel! There are various healthy and safe treatments and coping methods out there; however, both the NIMH and the Cleveland Clinic strongly urge anyone who believes they may have SAD to not self-diagnose, but rather talk with a medical professional first! A doctor or mental health specialist can assess your symptoms to see if you have seasonal affective disorder or another possible mood disorder.
As for handling SAD amid the coronavirus pandemic, it is completely doable. Dr. Rohan emphasizes the importance of keeping yourself busy, stating, “It’s more important than ever to push yourself to stay engaged with activities you enjoy and stay connected with people as best as you can.” So while you may not be able to have a few holiday parties with your closest friends, you can have a Zoom party and stay in contact that way instead!
The most effective treatment and coping methods for seasonal affective disorder (all of which are available even during the pandemic) include:
There’s a chance you’ve either scrolled past an ad for a light therapy box, or you’ve seen an influencer rave about one that they’ve recently purchased. It’s no surprise that they’re a hit because light therapy is actually one of the most effective treatments for SAD! As Mayo Clinic explains, light therapy involves sitting or working near a light therapy box, which gives off a bright light that mimics natural outdoor light. Many doctors believe that this type of therapy can affect the brain chemicals that are linked to both sleep and mood; to be more specific, researchers believe that light therapy can help your brain make more serotonin, the hormone known for regulating mood, anxiety, and happiness.
According to WebMD, in order for light therapy to work, you must sit at least 12-18 inches in front of it for 30 minutes or more a day. Individuals usually report feeling better about 1 to 2 weeks after they’ve begun using the light therapy box.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
According to the Mayo Clinic, cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of “talk therapy” that can effectively treat SAD. CBT can help an individual identify and shift negative thought patterns and behaviors that could be making them feel worse and teach them how to manage stress — something that all of us could use after this past year!
Mayo Clinic suggests another type of treatment for seasonal affective disorder: mind-body connection. Certain types of activities that revolve around the themes of “mindfulness” and connecting your mind with your body include yoga, meditation, tai chi, and art or music therapy. While these activities may not get rid of SAD entirely, they can serve as healthy coping strategies when it comes to dealing with the effects of SAD.
If you’ve tried different treatment methods that haven’t helped alleviate any SAD symptoms for you, then the next step should be to talk to your doctor about the possibility of taking a medication. As the National Institute of Mental Health mentions, because SAD is a type of depression, it disrupts the serotonin activity in your brain. Some antidepressants target and can treat SAD symptoms, but again, it’s always best to talk to your doctor to get their insight on the matter.
As mentioned earlier, not everybody experiences the full-on effects of seasonal affective disorder, but the “winter blues” instead. If you experience this from time to time but it’s not so severe to the point that you’d need to seek treatment, you can still do something about it. Implementing these small lifestyle changes, especially during the colder months, can help you cope whenever you feel the “winter blues” coming on.
When it comes to Ohio winters, we all know that we can go days without seeing any sunshine throughout the day, which is why it is so important to try and get as much natural light as possible when the sun is shining! Open up the blinds the moment that you wake up or try sitting near the window and letting the light touch your face when you’re reading or studying. Even just the tiniest bit of sunlight can improve your mood and help boost those serotonin levels.
We’d all love to spend the entire winter sleeping and watching Netflix, but let’s face it: life is all about balance! So, if you want to nap and relax all day, you’ve also got to carve out time to exercise. We all know that regular exercise is great for boosting serotonin, endorphins, and other “feel-good” chemicals in our brain, but it can also improve your sleep and keep you healthy. If you’re able to exercise in natural sunlight, such as going out for a walk or run at your local park, you’re also getting more mood-boosting benefits! And if you’re the type to avoid the outdoors at all costs during the winter months, you can always sweat it out at the gym — just remember to wear a mask!
WebMD notes that you should aim for around 30 to 60 minutes of exercise three times a week to reap the benefits.
Maintain Social Connections
“Socializing” looks very different this year, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less important to our health and wellbeing. Being around those that you care for can improve your mood instantly, and you can count on them to be there for you with helpful advice when you need it. Although you may not be able to spend time together in person this holiday season, this is the 21st century, so we have plenty of technology to make up for that! Get a group of friends together for a Netflix Watch Party and watch a funny movie together, or have a coffee date via Zoom — get creative and have fun with it!
2020 has been anything but easy, and it’s affected us all in a myriad of ways. None of us are quite sure how the pandemic will play out over the coming months, but what we are all sure of is the need to take care of ourselves and others. Continue wearing your masks and social distancing, but remember to look after your mental health as well. If you’ve been cooped up indoors too long, go outside and get some sunshine — even if it’s just for five minutes. If you’re missing your friends, catch up with them through FaceTime or Zoom. The chillier temperatures and darker days can certainly affect your mood and energy, but rest assured knowing that you can take steps to prevent SAD from diminishing your holiday spirit this year.