Seasonal Affective Disorder and COVID-19

Pandemic may put added strain on our mental health this winter
February 23, 2021

It is not uncommon for the shorter days and colder temperatures to affect us during the winter months.

While some people don’t notice a difference in their mental health, others may experience a seasonal depression or loss of energy.

This condition is often called Seasonal Affective Disorder, and it could be an even bigger problem during the pandemic this year.

Seasonal affective disorder is a form of recurrent depression that can start in late fall or early winter. Symptoms can include low energy, poor mood, excessive sleepiness, craving carbohydrates, over-eating and gaining weight, as well as social withdrawal or isolation.

In most cases, SAD treatment does not require a prescription.

In normal years, those who are prone to winter blues or seasonal affective disorder can take steps to prevent or reduce the symptoms of feeling sad, feeling lonely or having a lack of energy. Most providers would suggest getting out of the house, visiting friends, going out to dinner or a movie.

However, everything is different this year because of COVID-19.

The worry is that more people will feel the effects of SAD, and it may seem as if there are fewer options to combat it this year.

Even with the pandemic, there are steps we can take to shake off the winter doldrums and seasonal affective disorder symptoms.

Some suggestions are:

  • Go for a walk on a sunny day; b sure to bundle up and take a cellphone in case of emergencies
  • If you have the time, try to pick a new location for the walk (Boardwalk, state park, beach)
  • Bring your dog, too – he or she will also appreciate the new smells and sounds
  • Get takeout from a favorite restaurant as a treat
  • Paint your nails or try out a moisturizing face mask
  • Try to learn a new hobby – YouTube has endless DIY ideas (like tai chi)
  • Call a friend or loved one and catch up
  • Host a virtual gathering with family members
  • Do something nice for someone else, such as dropping off a treat to a neighbor
  • Try an online yoga class or meditation
  • Talk to your pastor or spiritual guide
  • Talk to your doctor if symptoms get worse or do not improve.

Seasonal affective disorder is more common in women and is obviously more common for those who live in areas where winters become cold.

In the Northeast, estimates say about 3 to 5 percent of the population experiences SAD.

Getting outside or sitting in the sunshine are great ways to help improve your mood. People often spend much of the winter months inside, which reduces the amount of Vitamin D you get. If you think about it, you feel healthier and have more energy in the summer because you typically spend more time outside.

If you are concerned about not being able to get outdoors, you could talk to your healthcare provider about taking a Vitamin D supplement.

Another option is light therapy – the use of medical-grade light devices that aim to replace the reduced light of shorter days with bright, artificial light. Appropriate light boxes filter out harmful ultraviolet rays and deliver 10,000 lux (a measure of brightness), which is more than 20 times greater than ordinary indoor lighting.

Before purchasing a light therapy device, talk to your provider for recommendations of types of boxes that might be right for you.

If you decide to use light therapy, you should plan to sit in front of the device for about 30 minutes before 8 a.m. You do not need to stare at the light. You can do other things while benefiting from light therapy.

For those of us who are able, getting outside into the sunshine on warmer days should be enough. Try to spend time outside throughout the day, with a focus on getting out in the morning hours.

If you feel you are experiencing other mental health concerns due to the pandemic, reach out to your provider immediately. If you do not have a provider, call 2-1-1 in Delaware to be connected to support services.

Beebe Healthcare and Beebe Medical Group offer telemedicine appointments so patients can connect through a secure video link to talk to a provider about issues and concerns. Do not delay care.

In addition to calling your primary care physician or psychologist, if you have one, resources include the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Disaster Distress hotline, 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746; the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-7233 (TTY: 1-800-787-3224); and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255 or call 911.

Kim Blanch, RN, is community services manager for Beebe Healthcare.



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