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Seasonal Affective Disorder and COVID: How to Cope

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Good ole wintertime…hot cocoa, sledding, building a snowman, and making memories with loved ones. Or if you happen to live in warmer regions, the humidity is down, crowds dissipated, and you aren’t stuck inside to avoid the excessive heat. What could be better? For many, a lot could be better than winter. In fact, for many, winter is the most challenging time of year when it comes to mental health. 

Lack of sunshine, being cold, dealing with snow, slush, ice, and a host of other things make many people dislike (some even hate) the winter. But for some, wintertime brings along more than just colder temperatures and ‘the blues.’ A number of people experience Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. 

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is one type of depression. It is related to changes in the season with most people experiencing Fall and Winter SAD. Generally speaking, SAD begins at the same time of year each year and also ends at the same time of year. There are those too, however, who suffer from Spring and Summer SAD. Although less common, this does exist and is no less debilitating than other types of depression. 

The American Psychiatry Association reports that 5% of adults in the United States experience Seasonal Affective Disorder  or SAD. SAD is considered a type of depression. In the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), it is identified as Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern. 

This seasonal depression is more common in women than men and occurs for about 40% of the year on average. If you or someone you love is experiencing SAD or depression of any kind there is help. Futures Recovery Healthcare is dedicated to providing excellence in mental health care in our Mental Health Program

SAD is connected to a biochemical imbalance in the brain from shorter daylight hours and decreased exposure to sunlight in the winter. For this reason, SAD is more common in people who live further from the equator and have fewer daylight hours during the winter. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), about 1% of Florida residents experience SAD while in Alaska about 9% experience Fall/Winter SAD. Typically, SAD lasts for about four to five months. 

Signs and Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Just as with other types of depression symptoms can vary from mild to severe. Some of the more common symptoms of Fall//Winter SAD can be chronic fatigue, oversleeping, weight gain, and carbohydrate cravings. When it comes to Spring/Summer SAD more commonly found symptoms include loss of appetite, insomnia, weight loss, and anxiety. Other symptoms for both can include:

  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Feelings of sadness
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Loss of interest in hobbies, activities, interests
  • Loss of energy
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Difficulty making decisions 
  • Thoughts of suicide

When it comes to SAD, symptoms generally start off as mild but usually get worse as the season goes on. For many, January and February are the worst months. And while most people begin to experience SAD between the ages of 18 and 30, onset can take place at any age. 

COVID-19 and Seasonal Affective Disorder

As COVID-19 continues to rage across our nation, the rates of depression are climbing and the projection is that cases of SAD will also increase.  As we near one year of being in a pandemic, many are becoming depressed—many of these people are those who haven’t experienced depression before this. And as we continue to be limited in travel, social gatherings, and entertainment the coming months promise to bring more depression with SAD. Those who previously weren’t impacted by the seasonal changes may have a different experience this year. 

It’s vital this year more than ever for anyone who is suffering from any type of depression to seek help. At Futures, we know firsthand how difficult 2020 has been for many with mental health disorders particularly depression. Our caring, compassionate team is dedicated to helping each person who comes to us for help to get the care they deserve

According to research about 20% of people who suffer from SAD also have bipolar disorder and many have a major depressive disorder. With COVID wreaking havoc on so many mental health, it’s vital to be aware of how SAD may further complicate these mental health disorders. 

As so many are isolated, stuck inside, and experiencing financial stressors during COVID, it’s no wonder many who have not experienced any type of depression before may find the winter months difficult. 

For anyone who is suffering from any type of depression, it can be very challenging to get up and navigate the day. This holds true whether or not you have had depression before or if this is all new to you. Either way, don’t despair! There is hope and help for the treatment of not only SAD but any type of depression. 

Tips to Cope with SAD

Those individuals who have experienced SAD or another type of depression may have coping mechanisms in place. From meditations to spending time with loved ones, there are numerous things to be done to ward off or help you cope with seasonal affective disorder. However, COVID-19 has thrown a monkey wrench into all of this. 

Many with SAD or another type of depression lean into certain coping skills they’ve developed either on their own or with the help of a therapist to help them get through the tougher winter months. From keeping a busy schedule to pursuing hobbies and other interests, establishing healthy coping skills is an essential part of living with any type of depression. 

However, with the continuing COVID restrictions, some of these once taken for granted coping skills are unavailable to many. This is particularly true for anyone who is living in colder places. Outdoor options are limited and indoor options in many places aren’t even available. Not only are these things ‘depressing’ in and of themselves, but there is also the mental aspect. Holidays are different this year, we don’t know what to expect in the coming months with COVID as we hope for a return to ‘normal’, kids are being homeschooled, people have lost (and continue to lose) jobs so there is financial strain…the list goes on. 

Not only are many dealing with all of these factors, the thought of ‘how will I cope?’, ‘what will it be like?’, and ‘what is going to happen next?’, all bring a kind of despair which can ultimately increase depression. 

So what can you do? 

First, it’s imperative that if you or a loved one are suffering from depression of any type you seek professional help. Consulting a mental health professional can help you to not only get the correct diagnosis they will also help you get the best care and treatment for seasonal affective disorder or any other type of depression. 

However, here are some tips to help you cope. 

1. Discover New Hobbies

While this may seem daunting to anyone who is in the midst of SAD if you’re able to make yourself do this it can prove to be very helpful. If you typically attend yoga at a studio, for example, start doing yoga at home. This may not be ‘ideal’ but you will still get the therapeutic benefits associated with yoga or another type of exercise. 

2. Invest in Winter Gear

So many don’t like the cold and dark of the winter. And while this is understandable, winter will come and go on its own schedule. Although it may seem like you can’t enjoy outdoor activities you still can. Investing in a down-filled warm coat, cozy and warm hats and gloves, boots, and other essential winter gear will enable you to get out into the great outdoors again. 

Walks in the snow can be mesmerizing, calming, and quite beautiful. Often in the wintertime, the skies are clear and the stars seem to shine brighter than other months. Take some time to enjoy the beauty winter has to offer—just bundle up! Just being outdoors can provide relief for many experiencing SAD or other mental health issues like anxiety disorders.

3. Think Outside of the Box

We’ve all become experts by this time at thinking outside of the box. Challenge yourself to continue to do so in seeking comfort and relief from SAD symptoms. Whether it’s finding new ways to connect with others, adapting interests and hobbies to fit with COVID restrictions, investing in a lightbox for light therapy, or simply doing something new, it’s important to keep an open mind and seek new ways to comfort yourself. 

There’s no doubt that this winter will be more difficult for most of us to navigate, however, with the right coping skills—some you’ve adapted—we will all find ourselves healthy, safe, and happy once again in the warmer months. 

If you or a loved one are suffering from any type of depression—including SAD—Futures’ Mental Health Program can help. Contact us today! Visit us online or call 866-804-2098.

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