For many of us—especially those who live at higher latitudes in the northern hemisphere—the seasonal onset of colder weather and waning sunlight is accompanied by negative trends in both our mood and energy.
The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which can range from irritability, negative thinking and feelings of fatigue to full blown depression, are experienced by nearly five percent of the U.S. population each year.
But as we enter the winter months in the midst of a global pandemic, experts are nearly certain those number will rise. COVID-19 has already contributed to a surge in mental health issues—even among people who don’t normally experience psychiatric problems. And it’s likely to intensify SAD and other mood disorders.
The reasons are not hard to understand.
Combine an extended period of social isolation with rising unemployment, lost or reduced health insurance, increased consumption of alcohol and other drugs, and limited access to healthcare providers and therapists, and you can easily appreciate the emotional strain brought on by COVID-19—even if you and your loved ones have been lucky enough to avoid the infection.
And now, with the mercury falling and the sunlight dwindling, opportunities to safely gather with friends and family while observing social distancing practices are becoming fewer and farther between.
In spite of such a daunting backdrop, I think it’s important to remember that pandemic or not, people with SAD often respond very well to a variety of strategies that can help prevent or minimize its impact.
You can start by limiting or eliminating your exposure to the internet, social media, and cable and broadcast news as these have a powerful ability to point our thoughts in negative directions. Consider filling your free time with things like reading, playing an instrument, developing a new skill, finishing a home repair, or pursuing a hobby.
Stay active. While the local gym may not be an option right now, you can still take walks, ride an indoor bike, practice yoga and stretching, or lift weights. Combine regular activity with healthy meals and enough sleep.
Winter is a great time to take the pressure off of daily meal prep by cooking large batches of food on the weekend and heating up delicious leftovers during the week. Also pay attention to staying hydrated, and limit or eliminate your alcohol consumption.
While social isolation may be a good recipe for preventing infection with the Coronavirus, it can jeopardize our mental health. So try to take advantage of virtual gatherings with family and friends over Zoom, FaceTime, and other video conferencing technologies. If you don’t have a computer—or a reliable internet connection—then pick up the phone or send an email to someone you care about.
Consider buying a light therapy box that provides at least 10,000 lux of brightness. Research has shown that just 30 minutes of daily light therapy can alleviate symptoms of SAD.
COVID-19 has already added a huge amount of stress to our lives—stress that’s measured in added worry and uncertainty about our health, our livelihoods, our relationships, even the future of our world.
If you feel that the pandemic is intensifying symptoms of SAD and making life too much to handle, then call your doctor. Your primary care or mental health provider will be able to recommend treatment options including medications that can really help.
And last, remember that you are not helpless and that you can get through this. Seasons change, pandemics eventually disappear. The essential you at the center of life’s challenges and uncertainties is stronger than you might think.
Teresa Butler is a senior program therapist at the Brattleboro Retreat's Anna Marsh Clinic.