Will More People Suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder this Winter?

No spring-time egg hunts. No summer pool parties. No fall fairs. Less income to splurge on extras anyway. Covid-19 has been making everyone feel sad this year. Whether or not that sadness will devolve into full-blown depression is different for everyone, but there is growing concern that, come this winter, our nation may experience a widespread increase in seasonal affective disorder.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

It’s completely normal to feel sad every once in a while. It’s monumentally different to experience SAD, the aptly named acronym for seasonal affective disorder. SAD, also known as seasonal depression, is a clinical form of depression which recurs cyclically with the seasons. SAD tends to come on annually in late fall. It coincides with the incremental loss of daylight hours. Symptoms of the disorder typically persist through the winter months, gradually subsiding in the spring when daylight hours begin to increase.

No one knows exactly what causes the depressive episodes associated with SAD, but research consistently points to the surrounding environment, namely decreased sunlight as a key factor. An overview of SAD published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information points to an imbalance of two brain chemicals – serotonin and melatonin – that play a role in seasonal depression.

Studies have found that as the duration and brightness of sunlight diminishes, the body reduces its production of serotonin, a brain chemical that enhances mood. Likewise, diminished sunlight results in the elevated production of melatonin, a hormone that increases the desire to sleep and which is believed to bring on depression. Those who suffer from SAD have difficulty balancing these two hormones.

It is believed that SAD afflicts some five percent of adults in the United States. Common symptoms include severe depression, agitation, lack of energy, difficulty concentrating and sleeping, loss of interest or enthusiasm in normally enjoyed activities, overeating, social withdrawal and thoughts of self harm. These symptoms can be mild or they can be overwhelming to the point where the sufferer can no longer function normally.

Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Good mental health requires having a sense of reasonable control over one’s life. For persons combatting the symptoms of SAD, maintaining a strong, consistent regimen with regular exercise and establishing healthy eating and sleeping habits is paramount. Avoiding alcohol and other mind-altering substances that can exacerbate symptoms is likewise important. Additionally, because the lack of exposure to daylight plays such a vital role, persons afflicted with SAD should try to spend at least some time outdoors in direct sunlight. Light therapy – sitting in front of specially-designed therapy lights that simulate the brightness of natural sunlight – is also an effective tool.

Should the disorder become overwhelming, persons should seek treatment from a mental health professional. Your doctor may prescribe antidepressant medications and/or behavioral therapies that can help decrease symptoms.

Lastly, positive social interactions with family, friends or even more formal support groups should not be underestimated. Keeping connected with those who care can make a huge difference when dealing with mental illness. No one should be expected to go it alone.

SAD and the Pandemic

Many of the adjustments taken to slow the spread of Covid-19 have had an adverse impact on the economic and social fabric of the country. Stress is a common trigger with any mental health condition, and severe emotional and financial stress is being experienced by so many forced out of work. Similarly, those necessarily shifted to working at home are often experiencing a heavy sense of isolation. Social distancing rules continue to make it difficult to reach out in any traditional sense to friends and family. Add to that the ongoing political and social unrest and a general distrust in government, and we have all the makings of a serious mental health disaster.

A June studys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found significantly increased negative mental and behavioral health conditions associated with Covid-19, particularly related to anxiety and depression. Substance abuse and suicide were found to be on the rise. Most significantly impacted were young adults, racial and ethnic minorities, essential workers and unpaid adult caregivers.

The results of the CDC study call for increased intervention and prevention efforts to address mental health issues. These needs bump up hard, however, against city and state budget shortfalls. Even in the best of times, it is not uncommon for local boards to decide that social and mental health services are the first to go. Worse, those out of work and most in need may not have the means to afford the mental health services they so desperately need. It’s a vicious cycle.

What Can Be Done?

Without question, Covid-19 will continue to trigger depression of all kinds for the unforeseeable future. Heightened levels of stress will create an outpouring of adverse behavioral activity, and that includes behaviors related to SAD. The holiday season, normally a challenging time of year for anyone dealing with mental health issues, will be particularly difficult.

Those with access to telehealth services should utilize them to keep connected to medical care personnel. Likewise, keeping in touch with family and friends through online web-sharing platforms or just good, old-fashioned telephone calls will help ease a sense of isolation.

Keep it at the forefront of your mind that socially-distancing oneself is not the same as socially-isolating. Getting outside in the morning sun, even for short walks, can be immensely beneficial. Wave hello to your neighbors. Assist one or two with raking their leaves. Help out an elderly friend by shoveling their walk. And, by all means, get a flu shot. Not only will you be protecting your body from the stress of the flu, but it’s one more small way to make you feel in control.