Do Not Suffer in Silence: 5 Tips to Fight SAD During the Winter of COVID-19

Article Submitted by Erin O’Connor, PhD, Director of Behavioral Medicine Education, McLaren Flint

During any other year, rates of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) are around 5% of the population. However, during 2020 and now 2021, as we continue to struggle with the global pandemic known as COVID-19, many more individuals may find themselves feeling down and overwhelmed for the first time, while those who have been struggling with this condition may experience increased severity.  

SAD is a condition in which individuals begin to experience depressive symptoms during the winter season. There are several possible reasons for this, including a decrease in the production of vitamin D due to less exposure to sunlight on the darker and shorter days of winter. However, the exact reason some experience SAD is unknown. Symptoms, such as low mood, disinterest, poor concentration, low energy, and changes in sleeping and eating patterns, tend to start in the fall and continue until spring, recurring each year around this same time.

Since the spring of 2020, COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on our lives. Challenges faced during the pandemic, such as job loss, role transitions, and major changes in routines, have contributed to an overall increase in stress. Adding the onset of seasonal depression to an already heightened stress level could impact many individuals’ ability to engage in daily work, maintain motivation for household tasks, and even engage in self-care. Furthermore, many of the adjustments we have had to make due to COVID-19, including physical distancing and cancellation of recreational activities, have prevented many from engaging in the behaviors that tend to help them through their low points. Participating in healthy behaviors when you notice your mood starting to worsen is one of the best coping strategies for combating seasonal depression. Although this may look different now, with a bit of creativity, you can still benefit from many activities to boost your mood. Here are some ideas:

  1. Physical distancing does not mean social distancing: Look for ways to socialize with friends and family from afar. This could include video chatting (e.g., via Zoom or Facetime), writing letters or emails, or simply making a phone call.
  2. Exercise from home: While the benefits of exercise are clear for physical health, research has shown it is also highly beneficial for your mental health. Start small: go up and down a set of stairs in your home a few times, do jumping jacks in place, put on a yoga session you can do in your living room (check out YouTube for free classes). Even short exercise sessions can boost your mood and energy levels.
  3. Maintain healthy self-care routines: This includes sticking to a regular sleep schedule, eating nutritious meals, and maintaining good hygiene, as these do impact your mood.
  4. Watch out for unhelpful thought patterns: Depression can impact your thoughts, causing you to see only the negative, or seeing things in a polarized all-or-nothing view. If you find yourself in one of these patterns, see if you can change them into more positive and balanced thoughts.
  5. Brighten up your day: Light therapy may impact symptoms of SAD. Sitting by a light box (look for one with 10,000 lux) for 30 minutes or more each morning may help regulate serotonin and melatonin levels, having a positive impact on mood, sleep, and energy. Any exposure to natural light is also beneficial, so open your blinds to let the light in, or step outside to soak up a few rays.

Erin O’Connor, PhD is the Director of Behavioral Medicine Education with Family Medicine Residency at McLaren Flint. Learn more about Dr. O’Connor by reading her full bio here.

If you or someone you know is struggling with seasonal affective disorder, please reach out for help. McLaren Flint offers a skilled team of behavioral health specialists and a range of therapies for outpatient care. Learn more about our behavioral health program here, or call (810) 342-2076.