How to beat it this fall and winter

A woman with long hair and a winter coat walking outside with a bird flying in the backgroundShare on Pinterest
Health experts say more people may experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or seasonal depression, in the wake 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.
  • Today’s medical news spoke with three medical experts to offer insight on how to spot the symptoms of seasonal depression and better manage the disorder this fall and winter.

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

Experts say SAD may be especially challenging this year for people still experiencing the lingering psychological effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today’s medical news asked three experts to provide information on this often debilitating condition.

Our experts are:

  • Associate Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Paul Desan, Ph.D. from 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 for Nanoscale Science and Engineering in Nashville, TN
  • Psychotherapist Dr. Mayra Mendez,Ph.D. at the California Graduate Institute in Los Angeles, CA

Dr. Desan: seasonal affective disorder The winter type begins in the fall, worsens during the winter, and improves in the spring. And if that happens most years as a recurring pattern, someone has seasonal affective disorder.”

Dr. Rosenthal: “At first, it might just seem like depression, which could include loss of interest in activities, decreased energy, constant rumination, catastrophizing, and feelings of hopelessness.”

Dr. Mendez: “Some common symptoms include feeling tired and sad most of the day for a period of two or more weeks, having low energy level and procrastinating or putting off necessary tasks or responsibilities, increased appetite and possible weight gain, tendency to isolation and avoidance of social contacts and a tendency to fall asleep”.

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 US.

There is a slightly larger group of people who find that their mood, energy, sleep, or appetite are disturbed enough in the winter to seek help, and they may not actually meet the criteria for major depression. We call it ‘subsyndrome 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 low seasonal affective mood may be informed by some people’s response to decreased daylight hours. It is less common, though not impossible, for seasonal affective patterns of depression to occur in the summer.”

Dr. Rosenthal: “Solar insolation is the amount of sunlight that one experiences at their location on the surface of the Earth. [Earth]. The rate of change of solar radiation causes changes in 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 abatement of symptoms [depend] It depends a lot on 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 starts to occur. Although we live in artificial environments, most human brains seem to be aware of the length of the light and dark cycle, and we know that the chemistry in people’s bodies [brains] changes of various types of studies throughout the year.

Now, what chemical in what place is actually linked to the human way? It 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 simply about the amount of serotonin or anything else.

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

Dr. Rosenthal: “The country has seen an increase in anxiety and depression from COVID. When you add an underlying condition of SAD, the two effects amplify each other.”

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

Dr. Desan: “We are seeing in all of our mental health clinics for patients an increase in distress and 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 spend a lot of time at home, they don’t get up in the morning and expose themselves to bright light. Consequently, I think seasonal factors are stronger,” she said.

Dr. Desan: “Exposure to bright light in the early morning is well-validated by multiple research studies because the time of sunrise is the most important circadian signal in many species.

If you trick the brain into thinking it’s a bright day 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 to January 15, use the light box for 30 minutes a day. A common recommendation is to use it at noon.” He also pointed out that many people with SAD use antidepressants.

Dr. Rosenthal also offered some perhaps less orthodox insights:

  • When you’re feeling down, consider doing a less overwhelming task that can help lift 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 memories, practices, traditions and special rituals. Dr. Rosenthal said this helps you break out of the cliffhanger and provides an opportunity for interaction that you might otherwise neglect or avoid.
  • Agree to make life changes simple and easy to manage. For example, change the furniture in the house. This strategy activates the creative juices and increases the chances of a greater sense of purpose and value in life through small changes.
  • Practice mindfulness and don’t neglect activities that normally bring you joy, such as gardening, exercise, biking, hiking, and any civic events, forums, and programs that might interest you.
  • Volunteer time for a cause. These activities help reduce isolation, increase participation in useful 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 lift your spirits and self-esteem.

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