Last year at this time, while the minutes of sunlight were dwindling by the day, there was no pandemic complicating people’s capacity to cope with the onset of winter.
This year, on the other hand, life as we know it has changed because the COVID-19 virus remains embedded in many regions of the world. And that could lead to more seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
SAD is a type of depression that happens most often in the fall or winter and is more common in the northern regions of the United States than it is the southern regions. As days get shorter, research indicates, the diminishing sunlight may trigger a chemical change in the brain that leads to depression symptoms.
It is more common in women than men and more common among people over the age of 20. If affects an estimated 10 million Americans.
Dr. Jonathan Aligada is a clinical psychologist at Sanford Health Detroit Lakes Clinic in northwest Minnesota. As someone who provides care to a community where the nights get long this time of year, he is familiar with the challenges presented by the onset of winter.
In this case, the presence of the pandemic gives people fewer options for warding off darkness.
“I use the metaphor of preparing for cold weather,” Dr. Aligada said. “When we get dressed for cold weather, we put on multiple layers. Normally people have the ability to socialize this time of year — we have gatherings to look forward to like Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
Seasonal layers of protection
Instead, those holiday gatherings will likely be smaller. Even those annual trips south in January and February, which so often provide relief from the dreariness for northerners, are less likely this winter.
“Normally we have those layers of protection against depression and mood,” Dr. Aligada said. “This year we don’t have them to the degree we usually do.”
Research has not completely nailed down the causes of seasonal affective disorder but less sunlight and shorter days are thought to be linked to a chemical change in the brain. Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone, also has been linked to SAD. The body naturally makes more melatonin when it’s dark. So when the days are shorter and darker, more melatonin is made.
- low energy
- excessive sleepiness (hypersomnia)
- weight gain
- craving for carbohydrates
“It’s in the category of mood disorders — we would diagnose it as a major depressive disorder episode or part of a bipolar disorder episode,” Dr. Aligada said. “But the trigger for it in this case is the change in season.”
Psychologists attempt to put depression in context by understanding when patients are first noticing symptoms. When it becomes clear these symptoms are showing up in the fall, providers have several options for treatment.
These can include:
- Exposure to sunlight. Spending time outside or near a window can help ease symptoms.
- Light therapy. If increasing sunlight is not possible, exposure to a special light for a certain amount of time each day may help.
- Cognitive-behavioral or interpersonal therapy. It helps change the distorted views you may have of yourself and the environment around you. It can help you improve interpersonal relationship skills. And it can help you identify things that cause you stress and learn how to manage them.
- Prescriptions. There are medicines can help correct the chemical imbalance that may lead to SAD.
Add new layers of protection
Most importantly, people should try to be creative about how they combat the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, Dr. Aligada said. Those layers of protection usually there — but aren’t in many cases during the pandemic — should be replaced to the degree it’s possible.
“Maybe people will need to take up a winter sport like cross country skiing or snow-shoeing, for instance,” he said. “And maybe you need to be creative about events where you can socialize. Be good about scheduling FaceTime or Zoom connections with family members. I would really encourage people to schedule things to look forward to on a daily, weekly and monthly level.”
It’s definitely a challenge to replace a traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas, but there are ways to make their absences less burdensome.
“There are things you can do to keep the winter moving,” Dr. Aligada said. “Society puts things in place for us to make it a little bit easier. This winter, I’d really encourage people to be intentional and proactive about creating meaningful activities and nurturing healthy relationships on a consistent and ongoing basis during the pandemic.”
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