How to beat it in autumn and winter

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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.
  • Because of 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 provide insight on how to spot the symptoms of seasonal depression and better manage the disorder this fall and winter.

During the dark fall and winter months 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’s a form of depression where one’s mood and energy levels can autumn based on recurring seasonal patterns that affect one’s emotions and behavior.

Experts say SAD can be especially challenging this year for people 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:

  • Lecturer in 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 of Nanoscale Science and Engineering in Nashville, TN
  • Dr. Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., licensed psychotherapist and Program Coordinator for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and Mental Health Services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, CA.

Dr. Decent: Seasonal Affective Disorder of the winter type starts in the fall, gets worse through the winter and gets better in the spring. And if it happens most years as a recurring pattern, someone has seasonal affective disorder.”

Dr. Rosenthal: “At first, it would just look 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 levels and putting off or putting off necessary tasks or responsibilities, increased appetite and possible weight gain, tendency towards isolation and avoidance social contacts and a tendency to oversleep.”

Dr. Decent: “Technically, you have to meet the criteria to have seasonal affective disorder as a diagnosis [the] criteria for major depression as defined by psychiatrists in the United States

There is a somewhat larger group of people who find that their mood, energy, sleep, or appetite change so much during the winter that they seek help, and they may not actually meet the criteria for major depression. We call it ‘subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder,’ but we see lots 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 low mood may be informed by some people’s response to a decrease in daylight hours. It is less common, but not impossible, for affective seasonal patterns of depression to occur in the summer.”

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

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

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

Which chemical in which location is actually linked to the human condition? It is not known.

It is quite likely that it is not just simple [chemical] levels because a lot of research hasn’t supported the idea that it’s just the amount of serotonin or something else.

I feel it probably has something to do with turnover and circuit characteristics. To think you just 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 throw in an underlying condition of SAD, the two effects amplify each other.”

Dr. Mendez: “Individuals diagnosed with mental disorders, particularly bipolar or depressive disorder, are at greater risk of experiencing seasonal affective disorder.”

Dr. Decent: “Across all our inpatient mental health clinics, we are seeing an increase in distress and the number of visits.”

Dr. Desan said lifestyle changes caused by COVID-19 may also be a factor.

“The other thing we notice is when people are at home a lot, they don’t get up in the morning and are exposed to bright light. So I think seasonal factors are stronger,” he said.

Dr. Decent: “Exposure to bright light in the morning is well-validated by several 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 an extensive list of specific light boxes that can help combat SAD. They update the list regularly.

Dr. Rosenthal: “Starting on August 15 and ending on January 15, you must 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 can help boost 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 cuddling a stuffed animal or furry blanket for a few moments.
  • Create special memories, practices, traditions and rituals. Dr. Rosenthal said this helps you step out of the melodrama and provides an opportunity for interaction that you might otherwise neglect or avoid.
  • Embrace making simple and easy-to-manage life changes. Change the furniture in the home, for example. This strategy activates 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 the activities that typically bring you joy, such as gardening, exercise, cycling, hiking, and any civic affairs, forums, and programs that may interest you.
  • Volunteer time for a cause. These activities help reduce isolation, increase engagement in purposeful and meaningful activities, and provide opportunities to positively impact the lives of others.
  • Wear your favorite outfit. Dr. Rosenthal said this simple act could lift your mood and self-esteem.
How to beat it in autumn and winter

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