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Coping with COVID-19 Isolation and Seasonal Affective Disorder

December 8, 2020

The most wonderful time of the year can feel like the most difficult for the millions of Americans who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) each year – especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people must stay at home more than ever before.

Both the impending isolation from quarantining during the holidays and the onset of SAD is what many experts are referring to as a “double whammy,” yet Jefferson Health Psychiatrist Dr. Najmun Riyaz believes it may feel more like a “quadruple whammy.”

“The pandemic has resulted in so many losses – of jobs and of loved ones – and additional stressors,” said Dr. Riyaz. “With reports already having shown increases in anxiety and depression since the start of the pandemic, this winter could wreak havoc on our already-affected mental health.”

How can you know if you have SAD?

First, it’s important to know the difference between SAD and the “winter blues.” Recognizing symptoms and learning how to cope is paramount if we’re going to get through this together, says Dr. Riyaz.

SAD is a form of depression related to seasonal changes – largely the decrease in sunlight exposure – and more than 95 percent of cases occur from early winter to early spring (with symptoms subsiding throughout the rest of the year). It’s important to note that SAD more commonly occurs in those who already have major depression than in those who don’t, adds Dr. Riyaz.

Many symptoms align with those of major depression, such as:

  • Low energy
  • Low motivation
  • Changes to usual sleep pattern
  • Weight changes
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Feelings of sadness, guilt, worthlessness, and hopelessness.

“Common behaviors that present in those with SAD, specifically in the winter, include oversleeping, craving foods high in carbohydrates, overindulging, and weight-gain,” explained Dr. Riyaz. “In rare cases, in which SAD onsets in spring, you’ll see the exact opposite: trouble sleeping, decreased appetite, and weight-loss.”

Winter blues, on the other hand, are short-lived feelings of gloom, tiredness, and a yearning for warmer months. If your sadness doesn’t hinder your ability to function and enjoy life, it is probably winter blues, not SAD.

How can you know if your kids have SAD?

Although more prevalent after age 20, kids can also be at a risk of developing SAD, especially older kids and teens, says Dr. Riyaz. If they are overly irritable and clingy, they stop being excited over their favorite things, or they are unable to concentrate (often causing grades to suffer), parents may want to reach out to their doctor for help.

What can you do to cope and manage symptoms?

If SAD is left untreated, our mental health – and subsequently, our physical health – may seriously suffer. Relationships and work productivity can be affected, and, in severe cases, suicidal thoughts or actions can arise.

Dr. Riyaz suggests the following coping mechanisms:

  • Educate yourself about the condition. Understanding why your body is going through what it’s going through may help ease symptoms.
  • Be aware of the prevalence of SAD and that you are, in fact, not alone.
  • Stay connected with your loved ones via phone call, video chat, text, e-mail etc. Connection creates a sense of belonging, leading to a sense of well-being.
  • Practice self-care, which doesn’t refer to pampering, but rather nourishing yourself properly and maintaining a routine.
  • Treat yourself to little things you enjoy.
  • Meditate – focus on yourself, your breathing, and how your body feels.
  • Let more sunlight in your house – especially your workspace if you’re working from home.
  • Keep a mood journal to write down your feelings, especially before bed. This can keep your mind calm and focused.

(For more tips, click HERE.) 

Unhealthy coping mechanisms – such as alcohol and drug use – may provide temporary relief but will only worsen symptoms and overall health in the long run, reminds Dr. Riyaz.

In addition to coping on your own, don’t hesitate to reach out for help, as professionals may advise a particular type of therapy.

What can you do to help others?

If you think a loved one may be suffering from SAD, gentle and non-judgmental communication can make a huge difference in how they treat themselves, explains Dr. Riyaz. “Ask questions, genuinely listen, encourage them to seek help, and, most importantly, do not criticize. If you live with them, you may also help plan their day.”

The brain is like any other organ in the body; when something goes wrong, you should act quickly to make it better, urges. Dr. Riyaz. Don’t “brush off” your SAD symptoms this winter as typical holiday stress. There is plenty of help out there.

Learn more about managing your mental health this winter from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

For more information on Behavioral & Mental Health Services offered at Jefferson Health – New Jersey, click HERE.