Feeling the winter blues? Follow these tips to start feeling sunnier during the coldest months of the year.

Your Health | 6 months ago

COVID-19 and Seasonal Affective Disorder: How This Winter is Different

Are you one of the estimated 10 million Americans suffering from the “winter blues”? Recognize the symptoms and learn how to get back to your old self.

Winter may seem like a natural time to stay inside for entire weekends, eat a bowl of soup and curl up on the couch binge-watching your favorite shows. But for 5 percent of Americans, what they’re feeling isn’t a natural transition. In fact, they may be experiencing symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a mood disorder characterized by depression that occurs at the same time every year.

So whether you or a loved one have felt sluggish or seem disinterested in activities that you once loved – and have noticed this happening at the same time each year (or perhaps for the first time this year because of social impacts from the ongoing pandemic) – learning about SAD may help you get your energy back.

So What is SAD?

With cold weather, especially in less sunny parts of the country like the Northeast, people naturally feel like staying indoors. What separates SAD from typical mood changes around seasonal changes is its link to feeling depressed during the same period for two years in a row, in addition to being a previous depression diagnosis. A clear link also exists between a drop in serotonin levels, neurotransmitters that are thought to be a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness and disruption of the body’s balance of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness. These changes ultimately affect sleep patterns and mood while increasing the desire to stay inside where it’s warmer.

“The further you get away from the equator where you have those much shorter days and much longer nights, the rates of Seasonal Affective Disorder go up,” says Alex Gnilka, PhD, LCMHCS, assistant vice president of addiction services at Atrium Health.

Signs and symptoms of SAD can include a desire to eat or sleep more – though a smaller number of people can get insomnia and lose weight. Most people feel sluggish, less rested after a night’s sleep, have an increased craving for carbohydrates and might even turn to substance use. People can also feel agitated, hopeless, worthless and guilty; have trouble concentrating; and, in extreme cases, have thoughts of death or suicide. They may also shy away from doing activities they once enjoyed.

How This Winter is Different

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

“We don’t know just yet how COVID-19 has impacted SAD,” says Dr. Gnilka. “However, as the pandemic continues, it presents new, and in some cases, increased difficulty for those experiencing SAD to cope with their symptoms. With continuing social distancing for health reasons, having alternatives ways to stay in touch with friends and family is important. Also, if you do not experience any SAD symptoms, you can reach out to others and connect in the event someone else might need listening ear.” 

We are also nearing several major holidays. While widespread vaccination has helped, it is unlikely that festivities and gatherings will be the same as in previous years. Dr. Gnilka says that will be challenging for many people to overcome, including those with SAD. 

The Bright Side

What should you do to fight off those winter blues?

Take up a hobby or activity you love. A longstanding hobby – especially exercise – can help combat the symptoms of SAD. If you love to run outdoors but hate the cold or longer nights, tackle the indoor track or run in the middle of the day when the sun’s out. Also make sure to be mindful of what you’re eating, especially cookies and sweet treats.

“Exercise is always going to be the best thing you can do anytime you feel down or frustrated,” says Dr. Gnilka, adding, “Be aware of what you’re eating. Is it because you’re bored or sad or don’t have anything else to do? Or are you going to just enjoy this cookie? You may need to be more conscious of this in the winter months than you normally would.”

Try light therapy for a brighter day (literally). Beyond exercise and diet, let in your own version of sunshine. With bright light therapy, you sit or work near a device called a light therapy box. The box gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light to brighten your day. Light therapy is thought to affect brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep, easing SAD symptoms. Get as much sun as you can in the winter months, all while adding in aromatherapy and Vitamin D supplements.

Enlist the help of a trusted friend or family member. Sometimes it’s hard to lift your mood by yourself. Getting a pal or loved one onboard can make things easier. If you feel like you’re hanging around the house too much, have your support person give you a call at the same time each day, or better yet, come over with their sneakers or a healthy snack on hand. Lastly, make a plan with your friends and family for the holidays now. Having something to look forward to can instantly boost your mood.

These tips should get you feeling sunnier during the coldest months of the year, and if you aren’t returning to your regular self within a week, see your doctor or therapist.

Additionally, Atrium Health’s Behavioral Health Help Line offers mental health crisis support 24/7 at 704-444-2400.