As the sun begins to set earlier in the colder months, you may find yourself feeling bummed more than usual. This feeling can be referred to as “winter blues” but is most commonly defined as “seasonal depression.” Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that causes individuals to suffer from mild to more serious symptoms of depression and it affects millions of individuals each year. Most individuals experience symptoms of SAD during the autumn and winter months, but it can happen during the spring and summer months as well. While it can affect both men and women, women often struggle more from SAD. The days get shorter, darker, and colder, and efforts to maintain self-care and optional activities tend to disappear. While SAD can happen in other seasons, the purpose of this article is the focus on lack of light exposure during the fall and winter months which is a primary contributor to winter SAD. Covid has isolated individuals and limited social interaction, thus causing anxiety and depression symptoms to worsen.
Common SAD symptoms include the following:
- Feelings of sadness and depression
- Sleep problems (oversleeping or insomnia)
- Lethargy and fatigue
- Changes in appetite (either poor appetite or carbohydrate cravings)
- Gaining or losing weight
- Trouble concentrating
- Loss of interest in activities
- Feelings of hopelessness or suicide
- Inability to orgasm and a decrease in partnered sex drive
Why this year could be worse than ever
While the winter can bring the blues for many people, those who experience SAD feel symptoms in a more severe way. The symptoms can be distressing and overwhelming and can interfere with daily functioning. Generally, in order for someone to be diagnosed with depression with seasonal pattern, they would have to experience:
- at least two years of symptoms that become worse during a specific time of the year
- the seasonal depressive episodes must significantly outweigh the nonseasonal episodes
Given that this is the first winter we are experiencing a global pandemic, it is difficult to know if symptoms are worse and harder to overcome than in other years. The risk for depression is higher than ever, due to the extreme isolation, fear, and stress Covid has contributed. While those who have never experienced depression or anxiety are feeling symptoms due to job loss, loneliness, lack of structure and routine, seasonal changes can exacerbate apathy, fatigue, irritability, and lack of motivation. Being unable to hold holiday gatherings indoors without risk has added to the stress of normal holiday stress and heightened the feelings of loneliness and resentment.
So, what causes SAD? Experts believe it can be triggered by a lack of sunlight causing the hypothalamus to stop working properly. This part of the brain has many different functions but one of its most important is its link to the nervous system and to the endocrine system. The endocrine system is a chemical messenger and is in charge of the production of hormones flowing throughout our body. In other works, the lack of sunlight results in a changing of production of certain hormones, like melatonin and serotonin.
Tips for coping with SAD during Covid
Covid has created isolation in a way many people have not experienced before in their lives. For many, having a support system is a helpful way to overcome depression. With Covid, it is important to continue to connect with others, in whatever safe way possible. Create virtual meet-ups, take socially distanced walks when possible, stay in touch by bringing back pen pals. Here are some other tips that can help with the symptoms of SAD during Covid.
Exercise: Exercise is the number one way to fight symptoms of depression as it releases endorphins. Try to exercise outside if possible but if it is too cold or wet, look up workouts on Pinterest or YouTube. Make a game with your kids if possible to help get everyone involved. Maybe this involves a gaming system, like Nintendo Switch or Wii Fit. Explore virtual walking and running trips with friends. You can find online challenges and each challenge can be completed in the timeframe that suits you, either individually or in teams.
Stay up-to-date with your primary doctor: With telehealth available at most doctor’s offices, try not to put off your yearly physical with your primary care physician. While maintaining your health is important every year, with the way this year has been, it is crucial to take care of your health and well-being. Doctor’s can help by prescribing medication to help with symptoms of SAD and can also do blood tests that might show any vitamins you might be lacking.
Snail mail: Many of us have been glued to our screens as it seems to be the one way we can safely keep in touch with our loved ones during the pandemic. Receiving mail can be exciting! Most of the mail we receive these days is either advertisements or bills. When we receive personal letters, it can help keep us connected in a genuine and thoughtful way. Find someone you can penpal with to look forward to hand-written letters or art.
Light therapy: Light boxes mimic outdoor light and cause chemical changes in the brain, creating a change in mood and easing other symptoms. Generally, a light box should provide an exposure to 10,000 lux of light and emit as little UV light as possible. It is recommended to use within the first hour of waking up in the morning and using it for about 20-30 minutes. Light boxes are designed to be safe but are not approved or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for SAD treatment. Try and make a ritual out of getting up in the morning and spending time with your light box. Covid has made it difficult to get out of bed and face the day now more than ever so getting into this routine can be helpful.
Brighten up your living space: It can be tempting to draw the blinds and curtains close when you’re feeling down but open them up and let the sunshine in! Move your work space closer to a window so you get as much natural light as possible. Set up mirrors in strategic areas to help direct light into dark areas of the home as well as adding artwork to the walls.
Go outside, despite the cold: Going for a short 10-15 minute walk during the day can help boost your mood, even if the clouds are covering the sun. It can also help change your environment instead of staring at the same four walls all day. Bundle up, take your dog for a walk, or social-distance walk with a friend on lunch if possible. Feel the sun on your face, even if it’s cold sun, and enjoy the extra physical activity.
Cultivate an indoor garden: Gardening with indoor houseplants can help connect us to nature in a way that we aren’t able or willing to do during the colder months. This can help boost your mood and also help remove toxins from the air, which allows us to breathe easier. Breathwork can help us to self-soothe when we are feeling overwhelmed by the isolation and unknown future that Covid has created. Gardening also creates a new activity for your day that allows you to move around and use your hands.
Practice mindfulness and emotional resilience: Remember that it is okay to have a bad day and that this won’t last forever. If you aren’t familiar with mindfulness practices, try downloading an app like Calm or Insight Timer to practice breathing and remaining present. There are great free options for learning what type of mindfulness works for you. We have never had to face a global pandemic and it can be helpful to remind yourself that you are surviving and doing the best you can with the resources available.
Cut down on screen time: We all want to stay up-to-date on Covid information, as well as all of the other happenings but sometimes the news can be overwhelming and cause more anxiety. Try to limit yourself to watching the news only once a day. If you find yourself doom scrolling through Twitter or Facebook too often, set a timer for yourself when you begin to scroll and once the timer is up, set your phone down and try doing another activity. Disable notifications that aren’t absolutely necessary and set your phone to Do Not Disturb at night so that you’re not distracted by buzzing and notifications while you’re trying to sleep.
Be compassionate with yourself: Remind yourself that this is unprecedented and there was no way to prepare or practice for a situation like a global pandemic. Some days will be bad and that’s okay. Try getting an affirmation deck to help practice different ways to feel good about yourself if you find it difficult to come up with them on your own. If you struggle with self-compassion, try thinking of how you would comfort a friend. Take those words and actions and apply them to yourself. Check out Kristin Neff for some more self-compassion tips, affirmations, and mantras.
Practice gratitude: Try to write down three things each evening that you are grateful for. No matter how small it might be, reminding ourselves of the good each day can help change our outlook. Perhaps your gratitude is that you have maintained your health throughout this virus. Gratitude may be that you were able to spend more quality time with your family, or maybe it’s that you were able to get away from your family for an hour that day. Maybe your gratitude is that you created ten minutes for yourself to read. Gratitude can look different for everyone, especially during this uncertain time.
Reach out to a therapist: Despite all the self-help techniques we can practice, sometimes talking with a professional can help guide us in the direction we need to maintain symptoms.
While some of these might be difficult to practice due to cramped living spaces or little alone time, podcasts are a great way to feel connected to others. Podcasts can also be a way of learning something new, listening to something funny, or working on mental health. If finding time between parenting and working is difficult, practicing mindfulness while taking a shower and enjoying a moment alone can be a form of self-care. When it all feels too overwhelming, take a moment to remind yourself that there are things in your control, and things out of your control. Take time to think of what is in your control and choose a coping strategy that feels attainable in the moment.