How to prepare for seasonal affective disorder during the pandemic

As leaves fall and temperatures drop, the “winter blues” is setting in for many, and worries surrounding the coronavirus may be amplifying these negative emotions.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a subset of depression and it usually occurs around the same time for everybody. So kind of fall into early winter, and then it lifts as we head into spring and summer,” says Yahoo Life mental health contributor Jen Hartstein. “A lot of it has to do with the way the light is… the days are shorter, the darkness is longer, and we shut down, we insulate, we isolate.”

Seasonal Affective Disorder affects over 10 million Americans, although many more experience the chemical side effects from seasonal change.

“There’s a chemical reason behind why our moods change in the winter,” Hartstein explains.

Serotonin levels tend to drop, and serotonin is one of the neurotransmitters we need to help boost our mood and keep us feeling more ‘up,’” she says. “We also know that our melatonin levels change, and melatonin is really impactful in how our sleep cycles work… [it] will impact our mood and our feeling sad and anxious.” With the darkness setting in earlier and earlier, our biological rhythm is thrown off, and our bodies may feel that it’s time to go to bed early in the day, causing us to feel lethargic.

Hartstein says that these feelings of fatigue and depression, combined with ongoing concerns related to the impending pandemic winter, could be an overwhelming combination for many. “Are we going to head into a second wave? We’re already seeing numbers go up. Are we going to have to go back into quarantine and isolation again?” she says. “All of those worries are combining, and it's kind of a perfect storm.”

Hartstein offers some tips to adapt and improve our mental health during this challenging winter.

(Photo: Getty Images)
Feelings of fatigue and depression — combined with ongoing concerns related to the impending pandemic winter — could be an overwhelming combination for many. (Photo: Getty Images)

Maintain connection

While summer lent itself to safer, distanced socializing, individuals in cold winter climates may be feeling dread around losing the option to connect with others outdoors.

Hartstein says it’s important to put the effort into maintaining connections, especially now. “Can you bundle up, wear lots of layers and still go for a walk? Can you go back to that idea of zoom cocktail hour or making sure you just have consistent phone contact with people?” she says. “We don't want to lose the community we have because we know what a protective factor that is.”

Get natural light

“Get outside and get that natural light as much as you can, even if it's just walking around the block,” Hartstein says. When we’re exposed to sunlight, our bodies naturally produce Vitamin D, which combats the negative effects of seasonal depression.

If getting outside isn’t possible, or you feel you still need an extra boost of Vitamin D, light therapy boxes are affordable and can go a long way in fighting off the “winter blues,” according to Hartstein. “You can use [a light box] in the morning and at night for 10 or 15 minutes, and that kind of replicates the idea of natural light,” she says.

Be kind to yourself

Hartstein says to make sure to give yourself a break. These challenges are unprecedented and no one expect you to be an expert at dealing with them.

“Be kind to yourself, and really allow yourself to make mistakes, screw up, let go of some of these coping skills,” she says. “You don't have to keep making the bread, and doing all the workouts, and engaging in all of this stuff. If you just need a break, take a break.”

Hartstein advises to take the pressure off yourself to know exactly how to deal with the negative feelings that arise during a pandemic winter. “[Just] be careful not to get too stuck in the break that it actually adds more to your depression then helps you feel better and validate your feelings.”

Validate your feelings

“This is a challenging time. We're still uncertain, we're still worried, and then add to it that it's going to get dark and cold and more challenging to be with the people you care about,” Hartstein says. “Validate that that's frustrating and that you're feeling overwhelmed by it, and then slow yourself down to figure out what you can do about it.”

Hartstein says that if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past eight months, it’s that we’re extraordinarily resilient and can adapt, even in the face of our greatest fears. So pat yourself on the back for how far you’ve come, and trust that with mindful coping skills, you can get through even the darkest of winters.

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