Managing seasonal affective disorder as pandemic stress continues

December 7, 2021 in Wellness  •  By Miles Varn, MD
seasonal affective disorder

The continuing COVID-19 pandemic has increased the number of people worldwide who are experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety. As we enter a second winter of living with the pandemic and its stresses, many people will be working to manage not only feelings of sadness, worry, and burnout related to the pandemic, but also the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). In the U.S., approximately 5% of adults experience significant symptoms of this condition and around 10% to 20% have mild symptoms associated with SAD.

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that begins and ends around the same time each year. For most people with the disorder, symptoms occur during the fall and winter. A smaller number of people experience SAD during the spring and early summer. Although the definitive root causes of SAD are not known, researchers have found associations between this type of depression and the disruption of circadian rhythms, a drop in serotonin levels, and imbalances in the body’s melatonin levels related to fewer hours of sunlight per day. The disorder affects women and younger people more frequently, although anyone may be diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder.

Although the situation is more hopeful than last year before COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots were widely available in the U.S., the depression and anxiety symptoms of people who are living with seasonal affective disorder may be amplified by the ongoing uncertainty related to the pandemic.

Steps to manage SAD

If you’ve been diagnosed with SAD or are experiencing symptoms that could be related to it, talk with your primary care physician or a mental health provider. They may recommend treatments including light therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (or talk therapy), and/or antidepressant medications.

There are also steps you can take to manage your SAD symptoms as well as pandemic-related anxiety and depression symptoms, including:

  • Maintain a daily routine. Structuring your day can have a positive impact. Try to get up and go to bed at the same time each day. Eat regular, healthy meals. Set a cut-off time for work-related activities, especially if you’re working from home. And strive to get 30 minutes of activity a day, whether that’s three 10-minute walks or a half hour indoor or outdoor workout. It can help to start with one or two smaller, achievable goals per day, such as setting aside 30 minutes to eat lunch and relax with a book or music.
  • Connect with other people. Last winter, the safest option was to connect with friends and family virtually. This year, if you’ve received all recommended COVID-19 vaccines, in person gatherings are generally safer than they were last year, although you may be at an increased risk from the virus if you have health problems that weaken your immune system or the people you’ll be spending time with are not vaccinated. Find friends and family who can be part of your support system and who you can share your feelings with either in person or through phone calls and video chats if you’re feeling depressed, anxious, or overwhelmed.
  • Let the light in. On sunny days, open all your blinds to let in as much natural light as possible. When the weather permits, spend some time outside on sunny winter days by taking a walk or hike or trying a winter activity like skiing or skating.
  • Practice mindfulness and other types of meditation. Meditation can be an effective tool to help you manage depression and anxiety symptoms. Mindfulness helps you focus on the present moment and can pull you out of negative thoughts about the past and future. Other forms of meditation, like breathing exercises, guided meditation, visualization, and movement-based meditations like yoga and tai chi, can help you reduce feelings of anxiety and sadness.
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