While many of us are feeling a collective exhale as the end of the Trump era draws near, there are still challenges ahead as the coronavirus continues to spread rapidly. The reality is we have a long winter ahead of us, and for those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, also known as seasonal depression, managing symptoms is bound to be even more difficult in lockdown. Here, experts break down what season affective disorder is, and how best to treat it, along with depression-like symptoms, in the time of COVID-19.
What is seasonal affective disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a clinical depression that follows a regular seasonal pattern. “The most common seasonal pattern in SAD is depression during the fall and winter months with periods of full improvement in the spring and summer,” explains psychologist Kelly Rohan, a professor at the University of Vermont. According to expert studies, seasonal affective disorder, both severe and mild, affects about 5% of the U.S. population, with women more likely to be affected than men.
What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?
By and large, the symptoms of depression in SAD are the same as nonseasonal depression symptoms. According to Rohan, the most commonly reported SAD symptoms include significant fatigue, pervasively sad mood, loss of interest in activities, sleeping more hours than usual, difficulty concentrating, and eating more starches and sweets.
Why do fall and winter catalyze a shift in mood?
The typical onset of depression in SAD is in the fall, often after the end of daylight savings time. “January and February tend to be the worst months, when the largest proportions of people with SAD are at the severest point of their symptoms,” explains Rohan. “The decrease in photoperiod, which is simply day length from dawn to dusk, is the primary trigger of fall/winter depression onset and the strongest predictor of daily mood in people with SAD.” While she emphasizes that the effect of photoperiod on SAD is stronger than any weather-related variable, there appears to be a much smaller but significant effect based on how bright the available sunlight is and temperature, with more sunshine and higher temps relating to better mood.
How might lockdown impact those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder?
According to Erlanger Turner, a clinical psychologist and founder of Turner Psychological & Consulting Services, the pandemic and lockdown have the potential to increase risk for SAD for a number of reasons, including not being able to get outdoors as frequently, which can can increase risk for mood episodes. Moreover, the pandemic is a major stressful life event on a global scale, and people with SAD have an underlying vulnerability to depression and are sensitive to stressful life events. “On one hand, people with SAD are used to isolating in the winter because they tend to withdraw and go into ‘hibernation mode’ as part of their symptoms,” explains Rohan. “However, I believe that the stress associated with the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to both more severe depression symptoms than is typical in people with SAD this fall/winter and the persistence of some depressive symptoms in the spring/summer when people with SAD typically feel their best.”
What are the best ways to treat seasonal affective disorder?
The first step to treating SAD? “It is extremely important to seek professional mental health treatment,” stresses Turner, adding that many therapists are offering virtual services online or at reduced rates. “Therapy can help people identify their individual coping plans based on their needs.” Additionally, some general activities that can be helpful to reduce or manage symptoms of SAD are getting adequate sunlight each day or increasing bright light in darker rooms. A treatment that experts often recommend is light therapy, which consists of sitting or working near a light therapy box, which emits a bright light that mimics natural outdoor light. Additionally, natural supplements of vitamin D may also help improve symptoms. Depending on your case, a doctor may also recommend an antidepressant medication. “The key antidote for SAD is for the body to produce more serotonin,” explains Tal Ben-Shahar, a positive psychology professor. “We can take antidepressants for that; however the best would be to treat it naturally—by getting enough sunlight. If that’s not possible, then we can get artificial light or, if that doesn’t help, revert to medication.”
For individuals who do not have SAD, but are just looking for suggestions to cope with the pandemic this winter in lockdown, Rohan recommends the following:
- Keep a Schedule
“Maintaining a sense of normalcy—as much as possible—is super important to mental health right now,” says Rohan. She recommends following a schedule, including a consistent bedtime and wake-up time in the morning, and maintaining a routine that includes getting up, showering, getting dressed, and eating meals at regular intervals to positively affect mental health.
- Pick Up Hobbies
Find a hobby that can be done inside and make time to do it every day, says Rohan, suggesting simple pleasures like reading a book, playing a game, cooking, or taking a bath. “This is an opportunity to redefine what it means to have fun when things are canceled or closed,” she adds.
- Limit Media Consumption
“Limit your time on COVID-19-related news to no more than 30 minutes per day,” she instructs. Moreover, choose reputable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or your state’s department of health. According to the National Institutes of Health, exposure to a greater number of traditional media sources and more hours on social media was associated with mental distress during the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.
- Practice Positive Thinking
During this uncertain, emotionally charged time, Rohan recommends monitoring your thinking, asking yourself questions like: Are you having a lot of catastrophic thoughts about the virus and making a lot of predictions about bad things to come? Are you ruminating about the virus much of the day? Are you dwelling on all the things that are now closed or canceled? “Intolerance of uncertainty, i.e., finding ambiguity stressful, is related to anxiety,” she explains. In addition to distracting yourself from these thoughts with mood-boosting activities, she encourages patients to try to focus on the positive aspects. “This is an opportunity to witness the world coming together in an unprecedented way to solve a problem,” she says. “Remember that this is temporary. No one knows exactly how long this will last, but this too shall pass.”