- If a person is struggling emotionally and low on energy during the darkest months of the year, they may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or seasonal depression.
- Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts say this condition can make things even more difficult.
- Exposure to certain types of bright light is the most clinically supported solution to seasonal depression.
- Medical news today spoke to three medical experts to share insights on how to recognize the symptoms of seasonal depression and better manage the disorder this fall and winter.
During the dark autumn and winter months, when the days are getting shorter, many people suffer from seasonal depression (SAD or seasonal depression), especially in countries further from the equator. It’s a type of depression in which a person’s mood and energy levels can plummet due to recurring seasonal patterns that affect one’s feelings and behavior.
Experts say SAD could be particularly challenging this year for people still suffering from the ongoing psychological effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Medical news today asked three experts to share insights into this often debilitating condition.
Our experts are:
- Associate Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Paul Desan, Ph.D. Winter Depression Research Clinic at Yale Medicine, New Haven, CT
- dr Sandra J. Rosenthal, Ph.D., Professor of Chemistry, Pharmacology, and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the Vanderbilt Institute of Nanoscale Science and Engineering in Nashville, TN
- psychotherapist dr. Mayra Mendez, Ph.D. at the California Graduate Institute in Los Angeles, CA
dr Desan: “
Dr Rosenthal: “At first it would just seem like depression, which could include loss of interest in activities, decreased energy, constant rumination, disasters, and feelings of hopelessness.”
dr Mendez: “Some common symptoms include feeling tired and sad for most of the day for a period of two or more weeks, low energy levels and procrastination or procrastination of necessary tasks or responsibilities, increased appetite and possible weight gain, tendency to isolate and avoid social contact, and disposition to oversleep.”
dr Desan: “Technically, to have a diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder, you have to meet [the] Criteria for major depression as defined by psychiatrists in the US
There is a slightly larger group of people who find that their mood, energy, sleep, or appetite changes so much during the winter that they seek help and may not meet criteria for major depression. We call this ‘subsyndromic seasonal affective disorder’ but we see a lot of people in our clinic who come in and just don’t have good energy in the winter.”
Dr Mendez: “Research suggests that seasonal affective depression may be influenced by some people’s response to a reduction in daylight hours. It is less common, though not impossible, for affective seasonal patterns of depression to occur in summer.”
Dr Rosenthal: “Insolation is the amount of sunlight experienced at your location on the Earth’s surface [Earth]. The rate of change of solar irradiance triggers changes in SAD.
It’s more complicated than you think. Cities at the same latitude can have very different rates of change in solar irradiance, i.e. onset and subsidence of symptoms, due to climate [depend] very dependent on where you live.”
dr Desan: “We know that in many mammalian species, when you expose the organism to all types of winter light, physiology and winter behavior begin. Although we live in artificial environments, most human brains seem to be aware of the length of the light-dark cycle, and we know the chemistry in humans [brains] Changes due to different types of studies throughout the year.
Now, what chemical at what point is actually associated with the human mode? This is unknown.
It’s very likely that it’s not just simple [chemical] Levels because a lot of the research hasn’t supported the idea that it’s just the amount of serotonin or anything else.
I think it probably has something to do with sales and
Dr Rosenthal: “The country has seen a surge in anxiety and depression from COVID. When you throw in an underlying state of SAD, the two effects reinforce each other.”
dr Mendez: “Individuals diagnosed with mental illness, particularly bipolar or depressive disorder, are at higher risk of experiencing seasonal affective disorder.”
dr Desan: “We are seeing an increase in the burden and number of visits for patients across all of our mental health facilities.”
dr Desan said lifestyle changes brought on by COVID-19 could also be a factor.
“The other thing we notice is that when people are at home a lot, they don’t get up in the morning and are exposed to bright light. So I think seasonal factors are stronger,” he said.
dr Desan: “Morning exposure to bright light is well supported by several research studies, as the time when the sun comes out is the most important circadian signal in many species.
If you trick your brain into thinking it’s a bright early morning day instead of thinking it’s winter, your brain thinks it’s summer.”
His team has compiled a comprehensive list of specific lightboxes that can help combat SAD. They update the list regularly.
Dr Rosenthal: “Use the lightbox for 30 minutes a day from August 15th to January 15th. A general recommendation is to use it at lunchtime.” She also noted that many people with SAD use antidepressants.
dr Rosenthal also offered some perhaps less orthodox ideas:
- If you’re feeling down, consider doing a less overwhelming task that can help improve your mood.
- Spend time playing or talking to your furry friends. If you don’t have a pet, consider visiting or volunteering at your local animal shelter, or just snuggling with a stuffed animal or furry blanket for a few moments.
- Create special memories, practices, traditions and rituals. dr Rosenthal said this helps you step out of the melodrama and provides an opportunity for interaction that you might otherwise neglect or avoid.
- Embrace simple and manageable life changes. For example, change the furniture in the apartment. This strategy activates creative juices and increases the chances of finding greater meaning and value in life through small changes.
- Practice mindfulness and don’t neglect activities that you normally enjoy, such as gardening, exercising, biking, hiking, and any civic affairs, forums, and programs that may interest you.
- Volunteer time for a good cause. These activities help reduce isolation, increase engagement in purposeful and meaningful activities, and provide an opportunity to positively impact the lives of others.
- Wear your favorite outfit. dr Rosenthal said this simple act could boost your spirits and self-esteem.