While the start of a new year is often associated with resolutions and excitement, many people find themselves feeling downcast and full of despair during this time. Some folks become increasingly somber and struggle to lift their spirits. This seasonal depression is clinically known as seasonal affective disorder (or the fitting acronym SAD) and impacts many of us during the winter months.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), millions of Americans experience seasonal depression each year. But as our country continues to see surges in the coronavirus pandemic, it’s likely that more people than usual will experience seasonal depression as they cope with economic hardship, job loss, isolation, illness, and the loss of loved ones.
While Mayo Clinic points out that seasonal affective disorder can also occur in the summer, SAD occurs more commonly during the winter. In either type of SAD, typical symptoms include feelings of depression, loss of enjoyment, withdrawal from others, increased anxiety, feelings of despair, difficulty concentrating, and reoccurring thoughts about death. According to the nonprofit health organization, people struggling with SAD in the winter may also experience fatigue, oversleeping, increased appetite, and weight gain.
In regard to the causes of seasonal depression, Johns Hopkins Medicine explains that decreases in sunlight and the shortening of days may activate a change in brain chemistry linked to feelings of depression. Mayo Clinic goes further to clarify that decreases in serotonin (a chemical that affects mood) and changes in melatonin (a hormone associated with sleep patterns) may play a role in the onset of seasonal depression. Both medical organizations also note that seasonal depression occurs more often among women than men.
If you or a loved one may be experiencing seasonal depression, the good news is that several highly effective treatments exist. According the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the most popular treatment is light therapy, which consists of sitting near specially designed light boxes for around a half hour to forty-five minutes each day. These light boxes act as substitutes for natural sunlight in order to readjust the levels of chemicals in the brain. Other treatments suggested by NIMH include psychotherapy and anti-depressant medications.
Luckily, even as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage our country, all of these treatments can be accessed from home thanks to the increased prevalence of telehealth. This development means that even people who are quarantining or feel uncomfortable meeting with a therapist in person can receive treatment for seasonal depression and process how seasonal changes affect their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Outside light therapy and psychotherapy treatments, there are also several strategies that people can use to manage their symptoms and improve their mood and overall functioning. Mayo Clinic suggests that people experiencing seasonal depression spend more time outside, work out more often, and try to increase the amount of sunlight in their homes. In addition, Johns Hopkins Medicine recommends that folks set reasonable expectations for themselves, avoid drugs and alcohol, eat healthy meals, confide in loved ones, and socialize more. While not ideal, individuals can turn to video chat apps like Zoom to maintain personal relationships in this socially distant time.
Even with additional barriers caused by the pandemic, seasonal depression remains a treatable condition. For those people who dread the winter months and experience a noticeable shift in their mood, happiness remains within reach with the right support. While this winter may be cold and dark in this especially difficult time, hope remains that warmer and brighter days are ahead.
Josh Sarnecky, LMSW, is a Clinic Therapist with Tanager Place.