It’s normal to go through periods of time where you don’t feel like yourself. Maybe you’re not that interested in taking part in your favorite hobbies or socializing with friends, or just not feeling as hopeful and energetic as you usually do. Often, these swings in mood are tied to the seasons and are attributed to seasonal affective disorder, according to National Institute of Mental Health. This year, due to the pandemic, they’re likely to be more common and greater in intensity, say psychologists. Here’s what you need to know.
What is seasonal affective disorder?
The defining characteristic of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is its timing: It occurs in the fall-winter period, more frequently for people who live in the northern part of the world, when days get much shorter (i.e., residents of Minnesota will be more impacted than those in coastal Alabama). Though it’s certainly much colder during those months, too, the key thing to know about SAD is that it’s triggered by a lack of light, rather than temperature, says Robert D. Levitan, MD, Cameron Wilson Chair in Depression Research and senior scientist at CAMH and professor of psychiatry at University of Toronto.
“The symptoms tend to be much like you’d expect in a hibernating animal,” Dr. Levitan explains. The tendency here is to conserve energy, so in turn, you’re sleeping more, eating more (particularly, comforting carbohydrates) and sometimes gaining weight. Sadness is a part of it, too, but fatigue and general sluggishness tend to be the greater issue, Dr. Levitan says.
Who’s most at risk?
Technically, women in their reproductive years, between the ages of 20-50, are most at risk for SAD, says Dr. Levitan. One possible explanation for this, though research is speculative, is that it has to do with our ancestors conserving energy for the reproductive process during fall and winter.
However, after many months of staying at home during the pandemic, experts say we’re all at much greater risk for SAD than usual. Psychotherapist Ani Kalayjian, Ed.D, DSC, adjunct psychology professor at Columbia University and founder of the International Association for Trauma Outreach & Prevention at Meaningful World, says she’s already seen a 30 percent uptick in SAD among patients this season. “I’ve seen an increase in lethargy, hopelessness, increased worry, increased anxiety and increased stagnation,” she explains.
How is the pandemic impacting SAD?
When we’re all staying at home far more often than before, that can mean we’re sleeping longer hours, not getting outdoors as much (say, by not having a commute) and therefore not exposing ourselves to enough light, Kalayjian says.
Physiologically, there are processes taking place in your brain differently than pre-pandemic. Normally, stress hormones are released before you wake up to help you deal with the early stresses in the day: getting the kids to school, driving to work, checking emails, says Dr. Levitan. They help you to feel more energized. Those stress hormones in turn stimulate production of dopamine, an important brain chemical that sets you into physical motion. This controls not only your motor behavior, but also your attention, energy and reward system. “[You] need to have stress hormones and dopamine triggered to feel that sense of energy that enables you to work and get things done,” Dr. Levitan adds.
If you go into an isolated routine, like so many of us have done during the pandemic, those chemicals in your brain go down, and your body enters a low-energy state. “That may have been adaptive during the Ice Age,” says Dr. Levitan, “but it’s a pain in the neck in modern society.” In other words, you almost have to fight against that low-energy tendency because it’s probably genetically programmed.
The socializing aspect — or lack thereof — also comes into play. “We need to practice safe physical distancing, but the part [we are] bombarded with about social distancing is totally inaccurate,” says Kalayjian. “We cannot distance socially; if we do, we are in despair.”
How to cope with pandemic depression
Light therapy is an often-suggested therapy for anyone suffering from SAD. It’s best used in the morning when you first wake up, says Dr. Levitan. He advises reviewing types of “happy lights” recommended by the Center for Environmental Therapy, and take care to overuse them or stare right at the light, as it will be much brighter than any you’re used to.
In addition to light therapy, there are many other small lifestyle changes you can make that add up to big changes to combat feelings of SAD. Here are some ideas:
Eat lots of small meals. You want to avoid going into semi-starvation because that can trigger binge eating. Aim to eat multiple small meals throughout the day (rather than a big breakfast, lunch and dinner), focusing on getting enough protein. Also avoid artificial sugar, which can give you a temporary energy burst but then lead to fatigue, says Dr. Levitan. (Related: how to eat healthy while working from home.)
Keep caffeine in check. A couple cups of coffee a day is not a bad thing; in fact, multiple studies show that caffeine and coffee can be good for your health, as they trigger behavioral activation. But, it must be consumed in moderation, says Dr. Levitan. “If you have too much, it will lead to difficulty falling asleep at night, anxiety and more problems than it solves.”
Get enough sleep. Clocking the suggested seven or more hours per night is so important for a multitude of health reasons, as is getting to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Dr. Levitan suggests that to get better sleep at night, try being more active during the day. The double benefit of this is that by being active outside during the day, you’re also gaining more light exposure. In the evenings, avoid blue light (phone screens, iPads), which are stimulating and make it hard to fall asleep.
Socialize (as best you can). “We are social animals, so we need to emphasize the ways we can interact,” says Kalayjian. This can mean regular conversations with your loved ones via Zoom or other virtual platforms, or taking socially distanced walks in the park together.
Go outside. We all need to create time, even a few half-hour breaks a day, to get outdoors and expose ourselves to light. “Run around your building, go to the nearest park, listen to the pulse of the trees or the water,” says Kalayjian. “It’s very therapeutic and helps bring positive demeanor to all of us.”
Change your vacation routine. Rather than take a two-week vacation in the summer, when the weather is already nice, Kalayjian suggests taking a vacation to a warm-weather spot in January each year. Doing this in the middle of winter (in non-pandemic times) helps you to follow the sun and maximize the benefits of your time away, and help combat SAD.
Laugh more. As soon as you wake up, turn on a comedy. Listening to something family-friendly, such as Dry Bar Comedy, for even 15 minutes while you’re getting dressed can help brighten your mood. “Laughing will stimulate serotonin and your essential nervous system and make you feel joyous,” says Kalayjian. “Laughter is a wonderful medicine, and it’s underused.”
Add supplements to your routine. Flower remedies are an excellent choice for helping to lift your mood and push out those melancholy feelings, says Kalayjian. She also recommends taking a magnesium complex at bedtime to help you to relax.
Change your mindset. Often, people view the upcoming winter season as a drag. But changing the way you think about it can make a positive impact. For instance, countries that have an active winter culture that people enjoy — Canada, for example — filled with skiing, skating and winter carnivals tend to be less at risk for SAD, says Dr. Levitan.
Commit to mental health checkups. Just like you see a doctor once a year for a checkup, seeing a psychologist once or twice a year can help you to be at your best emotionally, says Kalayjian. “It can help to see a therapist to [help you to rediscover] your life motivations, your passions, your joy and your creativity,” she adds.