How to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

Written by: Jada Vanderpool

Published on: 11 January 2021

As we enter the winter season of darker days and colder nights, many people retreat indoors with a somber mood.

While we all can experience periods of unhappiness, intense long-lasting feelings of sadness and hopelessness can be something more serious like Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

SAD, which affects 5% of the US population, is defined as a type of depression related to changes in seasons – most typically in the winter months.

Yet with SAD on the heels of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., social gathering restrictions, job loss and uncertainty, those symptoms may worsen.

A study reported in Time shows that in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental distress among Americans tripled compared to 2018.

Some symptoms of SAD include:

  • Loss of energy
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Carbohydrate food cravings and a greater appetite
  • Weight gain
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
  • An overall feeling of sadness
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, consider the following tips to help you cope:

Retreat outdoors: Colder days leads to less vitamin D, and SAD is linked to melatonin – which causes drowsiness. With less daylight hours in the winter, try to take full advantage of peak sunlight hours. Start your day off with a morning stroll or simply standing outdoors.

Move your body: Changing your posture and breathing and rhythm exercises can have positive affects on your brain and reduce depression, stress and anxiety. It can also enhance your brain health and cognitive performance. If you’re not big on exercise, find creative ways for movement like dance, yoga, exploring a new neighborhood or even cleaning.

Eat healthy foods: Fatty fish that’s high in omega-3s like salmon and albacore tuna are linked to lower levels of depression. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that has an affect on your mood, appetite, sex drive and stress response – and it’s found in many foods. Eggs, cheese, pineapples, tofu, and nuts and seeds are a few foods with high serotonin levels.

Light Therapy: As SAD is linked to decreased sunlight, light therapy– which is daily exposure to artificial sunlight – is an option to increase energy levels. Doctors recommend sitting in front of the light box of at least 10,000 lux for up to 30 minutes a day in the morning. While you can purchase light boxes on your own, it’s recommended to connect with your doctor or mental health provider to determine if light therapy is the right option for you.

Pick up a new hobby: With more time indoors, take time to learn something new. If you’re not sure where to start think back to things you enjoyed during your childhood, or things you enjoy researching on your spare time.

See a doctor: It can be hard to identify and navigate your feelings, so talking to a doctor can help you assess if you’re experiencing SAD, major depression or chronic depression. A doctor will typically give you a diagnostic test to see if you’re experiencing major symptoms, and may conduct lab tests to rule out physical health conditions linked to depression.