Seasonal depression, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a type of depression that’s related to a change in seasons. Some people with SAD experience depression in the spring and early summer, but for most, symptoms start in the fall as the weather gets cooler and the sun sets earlier. In 2020, we aren’t just dealing with shorter, colder days - we’re dealing with additional stressors like COVID-19 and what has continued to be a contentious election season. If you experience SAD, you may be feeling it a bit harder this year.
How could COVID make my seasonal depression worse?
The pandemic has already led to higher rates of depression. A recent study found that compared to the time before the pandemic, the number of US adults experiencing depressive symptoms has tripled[i]. The number of people taking depression screens at mhascreening.org has skyrocketed too - from January to September 2020, over 530,000 people took the depression screen, a 62 percent increase over the 2019 total number of depression screens[ii].
Even though we’ve been managing pandemic stress for a while, the onset of SAD may make those stressors harder to cope with than they’ve been up until now. Our minds are better at handling tough situations when we’re mentally healthy. But as we enter this winter season, many people are starting off feeling more stressed, sad, or alone than in past years. Depression symptoms like fatigue, hopelessness, and irritability are common. If you typically experience SAD, turning back the clock an hour and losing an hour of daylight at the end of the afternoon can also amplify the symptoms you’re already experiencing due to the pandemic.
As these two big stressors compound, the continued feelings of isolation, financial stress, and uncertainty from the pandemic can exacerbate your SAD symptoms. This is in part because the pandemic is naturally creating some of the conditions that often trigger SAD, like not getting out of the house as much and spending less time outside. With the weather getting colder in many areas, outdoor gatherings may not be an option and officials are urging that indoor gatherings remain small – often even rolling back phases of re-opening as the pandemic worsens. Feeling trapped and isolated is a common part of both pandemic stress and seasonal depression – and when you are dealing with both at the once, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and defeated.
How can I cope?
While this may be a harder year than others, all hope isn’t lost – there are a lot of ways to manage the symptoms of SAD. Techniques you’ve used in the past will likely still help.
Reduced sunlight can lead to a drop in serotonin, the brain chemical that stabilizes mood and maintains feelings of well-being and happiness. Some studies have found that people with SAD produce too much melatonin, a hormone that regulates your sleep-wake cycle, leaving them tired despite getting enough rest[iii]. Both serotonin and melatonin help keep your mind and body in rhythm, and in people with SAD, the decrease in both makes it harder to adjust to seasonal changes[iv]. Light therapy boxes mimic natural outdoor light and can help boost serotonin and other brain chemicals linked to mood. If you have a particularly hard time waking up, you may want a dawn simulator, which gradually increases light and may help regulate your body’s circadian rhythm. Not looking to spend money? Any bright light first thing in the morning can help – once your alarm goes off, turn on your lamp and open the shades, even if you need to hop right back in bed for 5 more minutes.
Spend time in the sun when possible.
In the winter, it’s easy to fall into the cycle of waking up, working all day, and then by the time you’re ready to enjoy your evening, it’s dark out. Make a conscious effort to get outside every day. It doesn’t have to be a big excursion or even a full walk around the block – just 15 minutes on your front porch or listening to your favorite songs while sitting on a park bench can help. Getting outdoors for an extended period on weekends might help you feel better during the week too. If it’s too cold to stay out long, try sitting by a sunny window while doing indoor activities. If you aren’t getting enough sun, you may wind up with a vitamin D deficiency, which can cause fatigue and mood changes, as well as reduced serotonin activity. Recent studies have also found that people with a vitamin D deficiency were more likely to test positive for COVID-19[v]. The results aren’t clear about whether increased vitamin D will reduce your chances of getting COVID, but as you spend less time outside, you may find adding a vitamin D supplement into your daily routine helpful with your mood and energy levels.
Connect with others.
One of the biggest parts of seasonal depression is feeling isolated. With COVID-19, many people started feeling Zoom fatigue after a few weeks of virtual hangouts. If you’ve stopped talking to your friends over video, now is a good time to get back into it – just know your limits so you don’t burn out. Keep in mind that the holiday season is coming up, and if your plans are different this year due to the pandemic, you may find yourself feeling lonely. Resist the temptation to deem the whole season “cancelled” or to further isolate yourself. If you need some tips on handling the upcoming holidays, check out this article.
Get help if symptoms are interfering with your life.
Seasonal depression is more than the “winter blues”. If it’s hard to function as you typically do, you may need some extra support. SAD is a valid type of depression and many people find working with a therapist to be effective during the tougher months. Depending on your experience, your doctor or therapist may suggest medication which can be helpful as well.
Feeling low but not sure if it’s depression? Take a quick mental health screen. Whether it’s because of the seasons changing, COVID-related isolation, or something else going on in the world, a screen will help you determine if what you’re experiencing could be symptoms of a mental health condition.
[i] Ettman, C.K., Abdalla, S.M., Cohen, G.H., et al. (2020). Prevalence of depression symptoms in U.S. adults before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. JAMA Network Open, 3(9). doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.19686
[ii] Mental Health America. (2020). COVID-19 and mental health: A growing crisis. https://mhanational.org/sites/default/files/Spotlight%202021%20-%20COVID-19%20and%20Mental%20Health.pdf
[iii] Melrose, S. (2015). Seasonal affective disorder: An overview of assessment and treatment approaches. Depression Research and Treatment. doi: 10.1155/2015/178564
[iv] National Institute of Mental Health. Seasonal affective disorder. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml
[v] Marshall, W.F. (2020). Can vitamin D protect against the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)? https://www.mayoclinic.org/coronavirus-and-vitamin-d/expert-answers/faq-20493088