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The coronavirus outbreak has caused a significant increase in mental health problems around the United States. Nearly half of Americans reported experiencing mental health challenges in a recent CDC survey.
In a recent study by The Lancet, researchers found that the quarantine’s psychological effects can range from anger and fear to post-traumatic stress. Additionally, according to the Psychiatric Times, other stressors—including isolation, school closures, unemployment and financial troubles, and caregiving—can further exacerbate mental health strains, such as anxiety, depression, substance use, and other symptoms among the general population.
Feelings of sadness, loneliness, and isolation are also common during winter months. Commonly referred to as the winter blues or seasonal depression, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that typically begins in the late fall or early winter and goes away in the late spring or early summer. In some cases, people experience summer depression, with symptoms that begin in the springtime or summer. Even though SAD symptoms come and go as the seasons change, SAD is a severe mental health condition that can interfere with an individual’s ability to function in day-to-day life.
Even if you don’t have a history of depression, SAD can still affect you. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), common symptoms include:
If you don’t personally experience seasonal affective disorder, learning about symptoms and coping strategies can help you support friends and family members as winter approaches. Here’s how to cope with SAD and take care of your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic.
Light therapy—also known as bright light therapy or phototherapy—is one of the best ways to treat winter depression. Light therapy involves sitting near or in front of the lightbox. Using bright artificial light to mimic sunlight and filter out harmful UV rays, light therapy affects the brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep, reducing the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, light therapy usually requires approximately 20 minutes of exposure, typically first thing in the morning, during winter months. Most people see improvements in energy levels and mood after one to two weeks of daily exposure. Because of the anticipated return of SAD symptoms in late fall, many people with SAD begin light therapy in early fall—with the approach of shorter days and less sunlight—to prevent depressive episodes.
In addition to a lightbox, using a dawn simulator can help reduce SAD symptoms and circadian rhythm disorders through exposure to a slowly increasing intensity of light for 30 minutes or more before awakening. In a study by the National Institutes of Health, dawn simulation was associated with more significant remission and response rates than light treatment.
With social distancing and other safety precautions under COVID-19, surrounding yourself with social support can feel impossible. However, maintaining a sense of connection and understanding is essential, especially when dealing with seasonal affective disorder.
If you’re planning to meet with friends or family members in person, be sure to follow the U.S. CDC’s safety guidelines. Reducing the number of people at social gatherings and the amount of time spent with those outside of your household, practicing social distancing, and wearing a mask can help minimize the spread of COVID-19.
Additionally, avoid in-person gatherings with loved ones at high risk for complications, including those with compromised immune systems and pre-existing medical conditions, such as heart disease. If you can’t meet with friends or family in person due to travel or other obstacles, try arranging a Zoom or FaceTime session to stay in touch.
If you don’t feel comfortable opening up to loved ones about your mental health, consider joining a support group. In a systematic review, internet support groups proved efficacious in the treatment of major depression. Support groups are available for adolescents, young adults, and older adults to share experiences with others in similar situations.
For many SAD patients, making simple lifestyle changes can reduce the symptoms of depression. For example, spending time outside or near a window during daylight hours can boost natural sunlight exposure. Alternatively, adjusting your sleep schedule can help you maximize the amount of daylight you experience each day.
Taking care of your physical health can also help with symptoms of SAD. During winter months, prioritize regular exercise, regular sleeping patterns, and healthy eating. If you’re struggling with cravings, scheduling your mealtimes and eating balanced meals—with a mix of carbohydrates, fat, and protein—can help you avoid weight gain due to cravings and overeating, according to a clinical trial.
Some dietary supplements, such as vitamin D supplements and melatonin supplements, can help treat mild symptoms by boosting vitamin D levels or promoting melatonin production. However, it’s crucial to talk to your healthcare provider before starting any supplements, especially if you’re currently taking medicine.
If your symptoms don’t improve with light therapy, you may need additional treatment for seasonal affective disorder. If you’re experiencing significant depressive symptoms or think you may have seasonal affective disorder, reach out to your healthcare provider. Because some symptoms of physical problems, such as hypothyroidism and hypoglycemia, can resemble SAD symptoms, it’s important to rule out underlying medical conditions.
Some common treatment options for seasonal affective disorder include:
Some people with mood disorders, including bipolar disorder, major depression, and seasonal affective disorder, benefit from treatment with antidepressants. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which block the reabsorption of serotonin into neurons to boost serotonin levels in the brain, are commonly prescribed to counteract chemical imbalances and treat different forms of depression.
Depending on the severity of your depressive symptoms, your psychiatrist may recommend starting treatment with antidepressants before your symptoms begin each year and continuing antidepressant medication after your symptoms in the springtime usually go away.
For some SAD patients, it may take several weeks to notice an improvement from antidepressant medicines. Additionally, you may have to try different antidepressants before finding one that works well for you and has the most manageable side effects.
For many patients, psychotherapy is the most effective treatment for SAD. Some common types of psychotherapy used to treat mood disorders include:
If you’re experiencing seasonal depression, reach out to one of the mental health professionals at WithTherapy. We’ll connect you to a psychologist, counselor, clinician, or psychiatrist that you feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements. One of the licensed therapists on the WithTherapy platform will help you learn healthy ways to manage depressive episodes and explore SAD treatment options.