For many, the winter season signals comfort and coziness. And during the pandemic, gray weather can help justify being cooped up inside. But for some, the short days and gloomy skies signal another burden on top of COVID: Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. How is one supposed to cope with both, simultaneously?
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal Affective Disorder, commonly called SAD or seasonal depression, is a recurring form of depression that is associated with the gloom of fall and winter. SAD may be associated with dysregulation of serotonin and melatonin due to decreased exposure to sunlight, which help regulate mood and sleep. Sunlight is a vital signal to the body, telling it to produce these important neurotransmitters, and without the sun’s help, some individuals simply don’t make enough to feel “right.”
Individuals who suffer from SAD usually experience symptoms similar to depression, and can struggle with low energy, daytime fatigue, social withdrawal, and poor health habits such as eating poorly and not exercising. Symptoms typically let up during spring or summer, when sunshine and warmer weather prompts more light exposure and social interactions. Despite its seasonal resolution, SAD creates a dread-filled burden for many each year, and shouldn’t be dismissed as just a “gloomy winter mood.”
How COVID increases the burden of SAD
This year, the restrictions set by the pandemic have exacerbated conditions surrounding SAD. Shelter in place has made it difficult for individuals to go outside without fear or masks, decreasing exposure to sunlight. Concerns of spreading the virus have also made it difficult to see friends and family, which eliminates a crucial resource to improve mood. Even going out to a park may be risky for some individuals who are immunocompromised or live with elderly family members.
Tackling SAD this year, and maybe even next fall, has to be done with COVID in mind.
How do I combat SAD while staying safe from COVID?
Some coping tools, like hanging out with friends, can be challenging during the pandemic. Here are some COVID-conscious options for combatting SAD this season.
1. Go for a SAD Walk
While going out to a beach or park may be risky, a walk around the neighborhood can be a safe way to boost your mood and exposure to sunlight. Try to set a schedule for yourself to exercise, even if it’s a short walk. Running can also give additional benefits for heart health, while mindfulness exercises like yoga can help keep you grounded.
2. Get creative to be with friends!
We know that socializing online isn’t the same as seeing your friends in person. However, the pandemic may encourage you and your friends to find more creative ways to hang out. Zoom watch parties, playing games together, and even gift exchanges like white elephant (who needs Christmas?!) can help you feel more connected.
3. Fuel your body mindfully
Tempting as it may be, be careful of how often you consume comfort foods. While comfort foods may be, well, comforting, they may lack essential nutrients and vitamins that help you feel better. Make sure to get protein and fiber in your meals, so that your body has the tools to beat your fatigue. A handful of beans, or some crunchy vegetables make a big difference! Eating better helps you feel better in the long run, especially when limiting sunlight access can limit vitamin D production.
4. Be wary of social media
Even during a global pandemic, there are still individuals who are promoting their best life on social media. It can be easy to feel alone and left out when you see people gathering or going out to fun places. Remember that these posts don’t reflect a day to day reality. You are not missing out by staying inside and staying safe!
5. Maximize light exposure
A key to combatting SAD is increasing exposure to sunlight, even if you have to shelter in place. Take advantage of morning sunlight by sipping tea near a window. Maybe start opening the blinds while you work (and save money on electricity). Or even just stretch in your backyard. Since sunlight is absorbed through the skin, be mindful of how bundled up you are.
When will I start to feel better?
In light of the pandemic, the effects of SAD may be prolonged as individuals face barriers to coping. If you feel that your usual coping strategies are not working as well as they should, you’re not alone. You can always talk about it with like-minded peers. Also, you may want to try shifting your perspective. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What are 5 things I can look forward to once summer arrives?
- What are 5 things I can look forward to when shelter in place is over?
- Who else can I talk to that may feel similarly?
- What are some adjustments I’ve made in the past year that I’m proud of?
- What are some things I already have, that I’d be lost without (ie shelter, food, health)?
And above all else, don’t forget…
1. You always have people you can talk to
If you want to talk about SAD and COVID, but feel you can’t reach out to friends, there are still many options! In the pandemic, telehealth and online support options are becoming increasingly important. Consider talking to a peer here to gain some support.
2. It’s okay to work differently during a global pandemic
The circumstances of the pandemic make work much harder for some of us. Remember that it is okay to be less focused at home where there are many distractions, or even in an office due to the concerns of the virus. Try not to compare your current work to pre-pandemic productivity; instead, set a goal to mindfully check in with yourself through the day, so you know that you’re doing your best within your limits.
On the other hand, for some of us, there’s nothing left to do anymore but work! So we’re hyper-focused on productivity every waking minute. In that case, remind yourself that even though you’re at home and wearing sweats, you have been working — and without the regular diversions, breaks, and perks of your old office life. But never taking a break won’t help the SAD. Consider setting up your own schedule of relaxing breaks and social activities, so work isn’t your sole function in life!
3. The struggles of right now are not your fault
We may have a tendency to blame ourselves for our struggles, but shake off these thoughts before they become firmly rooted! Struggles from SAD are not your fault, and COVID’s impact on society is also out of your hands. The pandemic makes you feel out of control, and seasonal depression can make the circumstances even more challenging to cope with. Feeling the need to heal right now is not a weakness, but a sign of resilience — listen to that urge, and try to take at least one step today, in order to lighten your load.