How to beat it this fall and winter

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Health experts say more people may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or seasonal depression as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Anna Malgina/Stocksy
  • When a person struggles emotionally and has low 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 specific types of bright light is the most clinically supported solution for seasonal affective disorder.
  • Medical News Today spoke with three medical experts to offer insights on how to spot the symptoms of SAD and better manage the disorder this fall and winter.

During the dark fall and winter months, when the days get shorter, many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD, or seasonal depression), especially those who live in countries farther from the equator. It is a type of depression in which mood and energy levels can drop based on recurring seasonal patterns, affecting a person’s feelings and behavior.

Experts say SAD could be particularly difficult this year for people who are still experiencing the lingering psychological effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Medical News Today asked three experts to provide insight into this often debilitating condition.

Our experts are:

  • Associate Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Paul Desan, Ph.D. of the 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, California

Dr Desan: Seasonal affective disorder winter type begins in the fall, worsens during the winter and improves in the spring. And if it happens most years on a recurring basis, someone has seasonal affective disorder.

Dr. Rosenthal: “At first it would feel like depression, which could include loss of interest in activities, decreased energy, constant rumination, catastrophizing and feeling hopeless.”

Dr. Mendez: “Some common symptoms include feeling tired and sad most of the day for a period of two weeks or more, having low energy levels and procrastinating or postponing necessary tasks or responsibilities, increased appetite and possible weight, a tendency to isolate oneself and avoid social contacts and a tendency to oversleep.

Dr Desan: “Technically, to have Seasonal Affective Disorder as a diagnosis, you have to meet [the] criteria for major depression as defined by psychiatrists in the United States

There is a slightly larger group of people who find their mood, energy, sleep, or appetite are impaired enough in the winter to seek help, and they may not meet the criteria for major depression. We call it ‘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 indicates that seasonal affective depression may be influenced by how some people react to fewer daylight hours. It is less common, although not impossible, for seasonal affective patterns of depression to occur in the summer.

Dr. Rosenthal: “Solar insolation is the amount of sunlight one experiences at their location on the surface of the [Earth]. The rate of change in solar insolation triggers changes in the SAD.

It’s more complicated than you think. Cities at the same latitude can have very different rates of change in solar insolation due to climate, so the onset and attenuation of symptoms [depend] a lot about where you live.

Dr Desan: “We know that in many mammalian species, when you expose the organism to all kinds of winter light, winter-like physiology and behavior start to occur. Even though we live in artificial environments, most human brains seem to be aware of the length of the light-dark cycle, and we know that the chemistry in [brains] changes in various types of studies throughout the year.

Now, which chemical in which location is actually linked to the human mode? This is not known.

It is very likely that it is not simply [chemical] because a lot of research hasn’t supported the idea that it’s just the amount of serotonin or anything else.

I feel like it probably has something to do with turnover and circuit properties. To think that you just have a certain level of a certain chemical in your brain that goes up and down? We know it’s not that simple.

Dr. Rosenthal: “The country has seen a spike in anxiety and depression due to COVID. When you add an underlying SAD condition, the two effects amplify each other.

Dr. Mendez: “People diagnosed with mental health conditions, particularly bipolar or depressive disorder, are at higher risk of experiencing seasonal affective disturbances.”

Dr Desan: “We are seeing in all of our patient mental health clinics an increase in distress and in the number of visits.”

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 home a lot, they don’t get up in the morning and are in bright light. Therefore, I think the seasonal factors are stronger,” he said.

Dr Desan: “Exposure to bright light first thing in the morning is well validated by several research studies, as the time the sun rises is the most important circadian signal in many species.

If you trick the brain into thinking it’s sunny early in the morning instead of thinking it’s winter, the brain thinks it’s summer.

His team has compiled a comprehensive list of specific light boxes that can help combat SAD. They update the list regularly.

Dr. Rosenthal: “From August 15 until January 15, use the light box for 30 minutes a day. A common recommendation is to use it at noon. She also noted that many people with SAD use antidepressants.

Dr. Rosenthal also offered some perhaps less orthodox ideas:

  • When you’re feeling down, consider doing a less overwhelming task that might help improve your mood.
  • Spend time playing or talking with your furry friends. If you don’t have a pet, consider visiting or volunteering at your local animal shelter or just snuggling up with a stuffed animal or furry blanket for a few moments.
  • Create special memories, practices, traditions and rituals. Dr. Rosenthal said it helps you get out of the melodrama and provides an opportunity for interaction that you might otherwise overlook or avoid.
  • Embrace simple, manageable life changes. For example, change the furniture in the house. This strategy activates creative juices and increases the chances of a greater sense of purpose and worth in life through small changes.
  • Practice mindfulness and don’t neglect activities that typically bring you joy, such as gardening, exercise, biking, hiking, and any civic affairs, forums, and programs that might interest you.
  • Volunteer time for a cause. These activities help reduce isolation, increase engagement in purposeful and meaningful activities, and provide the opportunity to positively impact the lives of others.
  • Wear your favorite outfit. Dr Rosenthal said this simple act could boost morale and self-esteem.