COVID-19 and Seasonal Affective Disorder: How This Year Is Different

Sad BIPOC woman looking out the winddow

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If you have the blue right now, don’t worry—you’re not alone. Each year, about 5 percent of adults in the United States experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD). For many, this is a reoccurring condition that visits from the late fall to spring, with the most difficult months being January and February.

But, as we get closer to winter, many people wonder if this will be the year we see symptoms worsen as we deal with the combination of COVID-19, the flu season, and darker, shorter days. 

As the weather grows colder and sunlight hours dwindle, it’s important to take extra care of your mental health to keep SAD at bay. 

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression with a seasonal pattern. Symptoms of SAD are similar to other signs of depression. This kind of depression shows up during the fall and winter months when there are fewer hours of sunlight.

According to Souzan Swift, PsyD, a psychologist at Heal (an at-home visit healthcare service), people with SAD usually find relief from symptoms as it gets closer to spring.

To receive a diagnosis of SAD, you must meet full criteria for major depression coinciding with specific seasons for at least two years, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

During the winter months, people with SAD show symptoms more than any other time of the year. If you are experiencing depression symptoms year-round, your doctor will likely consider a diagnosis of major depression. 

But why do darker days in the wintertime lead to an increase in depression symptoms? The reason why some people get SAD is unknown. However, the NIMH says researchers can draw conclusions based on whether you present the following biological cues:

  • Trouble regulating serotonin—one of the neurotransmitters involved in dictating your mood
  • An overproduction of melatonin
  • A decrease in the production of vitamin D 

Why This Year Is Different

Dealing with SAD during a pandemic that limits social interaction, many people are experiencing increased tension and anxiety. Additionally, job loss and changes in schooling for families may cause depression symptoms to worsen. 

“We don’t know for certain how COVID-19 will impact SAD as this is the first winter we are experiencing this kind of stress and fear in the world; however, with COVID-19 still being a major concern, those with SAD may find it more difficult to overcome the symptoms,” Swift says. 

We are also nearing several major holidays, and it is unlikely that festivities and gatherings will be the same as in previous years. Swift says this will be difficult for many people to cope with, including those with SAD. 

Not to mention that SAD is already underdiagnosed and undertreated as many individuals attempt to simply deal with the symptoms without any phototherapy, psychotropic medications, or therapy.

Leela R. Magavi, MD, an adolescent and child psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry, says many clinicians do not ask about how seasons affect mood as there are so many other things to cover during the session, and some individuals minimize their symptoms as they experience guilt and shame or feel weak conveying that the weather affects their mood. 

“This year, individuals may experience SAD symptoms for the first time, or they may experience severe SAD symptoms, which affect their ability to take care of themselves and the people they love,” Magavi says. 

Many of us are already experiencing depressive and anxiety symptoms due to limited social interaction, lack of routine, job loss, the political climate, and various other psychosocial stressors. Magavi says the seasonal changes only exacerbate demotivation, apathy, fatigue, and irritability. 

Leela R. Magavi, MD, Community Psychiatry

Individuals who have suffered from SAD have tearfully shared with me that this is the worst their symptoms of SAD have ever been. Even medications, phototherapy, and vitamin D supplementation have not been sufficient in targeting some individuals’ SAD symptoms this year.

— Leela R. Magavi, MD, Community Psychiatry

Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry, shares the same concerns as Swift and Magavi and points out that the combination of COVID, the winter season, and seasonal affective disorder has never happened before in human history, and things will be much harder for people with SAD this year. “They will be at higher risk for depression since the pandemic is making everything more stressful, lonely, and depressing for everyone already,” he says. 

He also expresses concern about new cases since everyone is more isolated and lonely, and the majority of people spend less time outside in natural sunlight, which increases the risk of developing seasonal affective disorder and depression.

Symptoms of SAD

While symptoms may vary depending on the time of year, the NIMH says the signs and symptoms of SAD are similar to major depression symptoms.

The signs and symptoms to be aware of include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, almost every day
  • Feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, and/or hopelessness
  • Low energy and fatigue
  • Low mood
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much (hypersomnia)
  • Overeating 
  • Changes in weight, most typically weight gain 
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Isolation and social withdrawal 
  • Carb cravings

SAD in Children

Adults are not the only population impacted by SAD. Children and teens also face seasonal depression during the winter months. The difference, says Magavi, is that SAD presents differently in children and may manifest as irritability. “Children may not directly convey that they are sad, but may exhibit significant fussiness, clinginess or emotional reactivity,” she says. 

They may also present with a constricted affect and respond to exciting news with apathy. And some kids will struggle with sustaining attention and retaining information, which Magavi says can lead to them repeating themselves or asking the same question repeatedly. 

During the fall and winter months, Magavi says many parents express frustration with the morning routine since children with SAD often struggle with daytime sleepiness. Children of all ages may express disinterest in playing with their favorite toys or with their closest friends.

Tips for Treating and Managing SAD

As the weather grows colder and sunlight hours dwindle, it’s important to take extra care of your mental health to keep SAD at bay. In addition to a professional/medical plan, individuals struggling with SAD are encouraged to seek out ways to help manage symptoms at home. 

There are a variety of approaches and activities you can try as part of an overall treatment plan, including exercise, socializing with friends and family, and participating in activities that were enjoyable before depressive episodes started. It’s also a good idea to postpone any major decisions until after you feel better.

Engage in Social Activities

Lagoy says anyone experiencing SAD should keep in close contact with their friends and loved ones as loneliness and isolation make the effects of SAD worse.

Self-Care Strategies

Swift recommends setting and maintaining a daily routine, eating healthy foods, and getting regular exercise. Self-care looks different for everyone, so it’s important to be mindful of your needs.

Interact Virtually 

Engaging in social activities can help alleviate the symptoms of SAD, however, Swift says it will be difficult to do this during the winter months because of the weather. And while it may not feel the same to engage in these activities virtually, she says it’s important to continue to do so as this will help you feel and stay connected to others.

Seek Social Interaction Within Your Bubble

Swift suggests that you continue to plan your winter activities with your immediate family and friends (those you have been quarantined with) but do so safely. “Don’t allow the inability to gather with ‘everyone’ for big events stop you from enjoying the things you can do,” she says. Plan a holiday dinner at home with your friends and family in your “bubble” or go for a drive to see holiday lights. In other words, get creative!

Psychotherapy

Talking with a professional can be helpful in identifying negative thought patterns, coping strategies, and ways to improve self-care. Swift points out that people reluctant to come in for an office visit during the pandemic should consider teletherapy.

Medication 

If you are being treated for SAD, your doctor may recommend an antidepressant, which can be helpful for some. The combination of medication and talk therapy proves to be more effective in treating depression than either of these treatments alone, according to a 2014 meta-analysis published in World Psychiatry.

Maximize Light In Your House

Lagoy recommends opening all of the blinds in your house so that the house has more natural light in the fall and the winter months.

Light Therapy

Because SAD is linked to the shorter days and decreased sunlight in the fall and winter months, light therapy can be used to help replace the lack of sunshine during those months. Light therapy or phototherapy, as it is often called, involves daily exposure to artificial sunlight.

“Phototherapy may normalize your circadian rhythms by stimulating retinal cells, which connect to the hypothalamus,” says Magavi. Seasonal changes and diminished exposure to sunlight may disrupt melatonin and serotonin levels, and fluctuations in serotonin and melatonin levels can adversely affect your sleep, mood, and overall functionality.

Magavi recommends sitting by a light box for 30 minutes or as long as possible in the morning. Light boxes usually provide 10,000 lux (lux is a light intensity measurement). Magavi says it’s important to point out that light boxes are not FDA approved, and they do not necessitate a prescription.

A Word From Verywell

We are all feeling the effects of the pandemic. For some, it is exacerbating existing conditions such as seasonal affective disorder, but for others, it is bringing on new symptoms they’ve never experienced. This year presents new challenges for people with SAD as we spend more time practicing social distancing and caring for our health. Darker days and colder weather also mean more time indoors, which means less time with friends and family. 

If you are experiencing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with a physician as soon as possible. Additionally, if you or your child has a history of SAD, don’t wait for symptoms to surface. Schedule an appointment early on, so your doctor or mental health expert can come up with a treatment plan for you.

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  1. American Psychiatric Association. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). October 2020.

  2. National Institute of Mental Health. Seasonal Affective Disorder. Updated March 2016.

  3. Cuijpers P, Sijbrandij M, Koole S, Anderson G, Beekman A, et al. Adding psychotherapy to antidepressant medication in depression and anxiety disorders: a meta-analysis. World Psychiatry. 2014;13(1): 56–67. doi: 10.1002/wps.20089