Seasonal Affective Disorder May Be Worse This Winter—Here's How to Cope

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According to Psychology Today, an estimated 10 million Americans are affected by the seasonal affective disorder And while it's no joke during any winter—this winter, without friends, family, or general human interaction, it has the potential to hit us even harder. Plus, SAD thrives on our lack of sunshine, and chances are, you’re logging more hours inside your house than ever before. So it’s time to prep. We asked experts about what to expect, how to prepare, and what to get through it.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

According to the Mayo Clinic, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is "a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons—SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year." Symptoms like loss of energy and moodiness start in the fall (when days become shorter) and continue through winter.

What to Expect

Those who experience SAD tend to feel depressed nearly every day during the winter months, though symptoms typically clear up come spring. This winter, it’s expected to hit a bit harder. “We know depression gets worse when we're not participating in the activities we enjoy, as well as when social interaction is decreased,” says Erin Brandel Dykhuizen, a licensed clinical social worker in St. Paul. “Additionally, stress generally makes any pre-existing mental health symptom worse, and with the economic, health, and social stressors brought on by COVID-19, SAD is likely to feel worse as well.” If you’re already experiencing mental health challenges due to the pandemic, the additional stressors and lack of sunlight may lead to an increased number of symptoms, says Vinay Saranga, a psychiatrist and founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry. 

Essentially, our bodies are not built to withstand long-term trauma, says Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist in New York. In turn, we become deregulated and adapt to the disturbance. “Call it fourth quarter fatigue, we just don’t have the same energy supply to combat the pandemic as we did when it first began,” Romanoff says. “Folks therefore will likely approach the changing season as they have many winters before this one—and with sparks of the trauma response: hypervigilance, feeling on edge and irritability.” 

This is a mash-up of two mounting stressors: SAD and pandemic fatigue. The collaboration of the two conditions poses a challenge for many individuals this winter. "The good news is many have had experiences, battled, and overcome SAD and subclinical presentations of depression during the winter months in the past," Romanoff says. "With practice comes expertise, and in turn, many resources to combat these challenges."

How to Prepare

If you typically battle seasonal depression, Saranga recommends taking extra precautions to stay on top of your mental health and wellbeing this winter. 

  • Try to get as much natural sunlight as possible. You can (safely) spend time outside while exercising, walking, or even sitting.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene. Develop a sleep schedule that works for you, and stick to it. This includes waking up at the same time each day (and winding down for sleep in that same pattern), avoiding alcohol, and making sure your bedroom promotes feelings of calm.
  • Be intentional. Dykhuizen says, “One of the best things you can do for your mood is to be intentional about doing things you enjoy and give you a sense of accomplishment,” she says. “There may be some challenges with this as we try to maintain social distancing so you may need to turn to new activities or projects that are less social.” Dykhuizen suggests trying crafting, jigsaw puzzles, and baking. 
  • Visit with your mental health professionals. If you already know that you usually are affected by SAD, Saranga says to visit with your mental health professionals through the season. Keeping your doctor’s appointments allows your providers to help you better manage your care. If you feel like you’re doing well and are considering discontinuing meds or dropping any care, think about waiting until after the winter months are behind us, Saranga says. “If you suffer with SAD, talk to your doctor about starting light box therapy, as this can help improve your seasonal depression,” he says. 
  • Try to stay present. "When a stressor happens, we tend to think catastrophically," Romanoff says. “As one of my favorite stoic philosophers, Seneca, once said, 'We suffer more often in imagination than in reality,'" she says. Therefore, the only moment you truly have is the present. Consider what you can do right now, in the next hour or on this day, putting one foot in front of the other. 

The Causes

SAD is believed to be related to chemicals in the brain, particularly serotonin, Saranga says. People with serotonin imbalances might be more likely to experience SAD and other mental health conditions. When there is less daylight, the brain can produce more melatonin than serotonin, leading to season depression.

No one you encounter is unmarked by the effects of the pandemic or SAD, but we are not equally affected. “Individual resiliencies, support systems, daily routine, and preference for interactions all contribute to an individual’s response to the current pandemic,” she says. “We often do not see others in their darkest moments. Do not let the imagined wellbeing of those around you make you feel worse about your own coping."

Treatment

"Start by getting outside and increasing the activities you’ve found enjoyable in the past, even if you don’t necessarily feel like doing them now," Dykhuizen suggests. It’s also important to talk to a professional. Most psychotherapists are offering online appointments—and psychotherapy is a very effective way of dealing with mood issues. It may also be helpful to speak with your primary care doctor or with a psychiatrist about an antidepressant medication. Light-box therapy is also beneficial. "Sitting in front of a 10,000 lux light-box for 20 to 30 minutes can be very helpful," Saranga says. “These are extraordinary times, and we can all use all the help we can get,” Dykhuizen adds. 

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