If you typically feel the winter blahs or the February blues, then you might be experiencing SAD, or seasonal affective disorder. SAD is a type of depression that affects people in the winter months because of the darkness from shorter days and grayer skies. It is more common in women than men and in the north than the south. Combine that with the high levels of stress, anxiety and now, even depression brought on by COVID-19, and those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder may experience more severe symptoms than normal.
Symptoms of SAD
About 5% of adults in the U.S. experience SAD and it typically lasts about 40% of the year. Although the cause of SAD is unclear, it is believed to be triggered by disruptions to our “biological clock,” which controls our sleep-wake patterns and other circadian rhythms, as well changes in serotonin and melatonin levels – brain chemicals that affect mood. Common symptoms include:
- Feelings of anxiety, depression, sadness, hopelessness and guilt
- Low energy / fatigue
- Trouble sleeping, or oversleeping
- Losing an interest in activities you normally enjoy
- Changes in appetite and weight
With the ongoing pandemic, stresses from lack of social interactions/isolation, fear over the health and safety of ourselves and our loved ones, and the overall uncertainty of this new way of life can negatively affect anyone’s mental health – especially those already living with depression or SAD. COVID-19 is also causing people to stay inside more, further decreasing their exposure to natural light – the driving factor of seasonal depression. For those who suffer from SAD, this can mean more severe symptoms than normal .
Tips for Dealing with SAD
But here is the good news. Depending on the severity, there are a number of different treatment options for SAD, so check with your doctor or health care provider if you are concerned. There are also steps you can take to help prevent the onset or magnitude of the symptoms:
- Use a SAD light – Studies show that sitting in front of this special light source, especially in the morning, can help reset your biological clock and cause your brain to release mood enhancing chemicals. People with SAD have higher levels of melatonin, the brain chemical that induces sleep. Light therapy is helpful for SAD because full-spectrum lighting regulates the production of melatonin. Melatonin regulates daily patterns.
- Spend time outside – Even if it is very cold, bundle up and spend 10 to 15 minutes outside. Keeping with COVID-19 safety guidelines in your area, get outside as much possible. Even on cloudy days the effects of daylight still help.
- Eat a well-balanced diet – One that includes an increase in mood-improving nutrients and vitamins.
- Take a vitamin D supplement – There is evidence that shows that low levels of the sunshine vitamin is linked to increased depressive symptoms. The active hormone in vitamin D, calcitriol, affects several mood-controlling factors in the body. You can have your levels assessed at your doctor’s office using a simple blood test known as serum 25OHD. Vitamin D3 is now known to be useful for not only bone health, but also immune system health, inflammation, against all forms of cancer, and of course mood.
- Exercise regularly – COVID-19 may keep you from the gym, but you can still exercise at home or go for a walk/run and aim for a minimum of 30 minutes, three times a week.
- Stay connected – Social support is very important, so schedule those Zoom or FaceTime calls with family and friends.
If you continue to experience “down days” at the same time every year, or they persist for days at a time, please see your doctor or health care provider. It’s important that we all look after our mental health and well-being.
Photo from here, with thanks.