Winter is coming—here’s how to prepare for Seasonal Affective Disorder in a pandemic

Will SAD be worse in 2020? Can children get diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder? Your biggest SAD questions, answered.

seasonal affective disorder in pandemic

It's that time of year when the days get shorter and the temperatures drop. The sun goes away and is replaced by clouds, rain and snow. For up to 10 million Americans, the change in seasons means more than pulling winter jackets from storage. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) sets in and makes it harder to face a new day with enthusiasm. But what is SAD, exactly—and how can parents identify it?

Here are answers to common questions about Seasonal Affective Disorder—including how the COVID-19 pandemic might affect SAD symptoms.


What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

As the name suggests, seasonal affective disorder is a kind of depression that comes with the colder months. The change in seasons triggers what many people call the "winter blues." It's not being sad that it's not beach weather outside: there's a lot more to it.

Usually, SAD starts in late fall and ends with the coming of spring. There are some exceptions, but most people who live with this disorder feel their symptoms worsen in the winter months.

What causes SAD?

No one knows what exactly causes seasonal affective disorder. However, we do know some of its possible causes:

  • A thrown-off circadian rhythm. Shorter days (thus, fewer hours of sunlight) can confuse our biological clock and trigger depression.
  • Lower serotonin levels caused by a drop in sunlight affects mood and may lead to feelings of depression.
  • Disruption of melatonin levels. This hormone is responsible for regulating our sleep pattern and mood.

Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms

Have you been feeling more down lately? Here's a list of the most common seasonal affective disorder symptoms. It could help you understand what you're going through.

  • Low levels of energy throughout the day.
  • A loss of interest in activities you once felt passionate about.
  • Odd sleeping patterns, including difficulty sleeping.
  • Loss or gain of appetite, especially a craving for foods high in carbs.
  • Feeling hopeless, guilty or worthless.

The symptoms may start as mild and get progressively worse with time. In the most extreme cases, people with SAD can also have suicidal thoughts.

Who is most at risk of getting SAD?

Seasonal affective disorder is more common than you may think. It affects around ten million Americans every year. An additional 10 to 20% of the population also experiences mild SAD symptoms.

This condition is most common for those between the ages of 18 and 30. People who have other mental health problems or a history of SAD in the family are also at greater risk.

Can children be affected by SAD?

Although SAD usually develops in early adulthood, it can develop in teenagers and even younger children. If you notice that when the days start growing shorter, your child or teen begins to withdraw and become uninterested in things they normally would be, have difficulty with sleep, irritability, and are anxious, then they may be experiencing SAD.

If the symptoms continue outside of the shorter and colder days, then you may be looking at more generalized anxiety or depression disorders. Regardless of when your child or teen is experiencing these symptoms, you need to take their symptoms seriously and have an open discussion with them and seek professional help.

Will Seasonal Affective Disorder be worse because of COVID-19?

We will likely see an increase in overall seasonal affective disorder cases this year. The COVID-19 has been a strain on mental health for millions around the globe. With no end to the pandemic in sight and winter quickly approaching, SAD may affect a lot more people than in previous years.

Quarantine stress, anxiety over job losses and a tanking economy, and grief over the death of loved ones may aggravate SAD symptoms. Stay vigilant for the symptoms and take action as needed.

SAD treatments to consider

Seasonal affective disorder can be hard to diagnose. Its symptoms are very close to those of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Luckily, there are a few tried-and-true treatments for SAD out there. And while they're not one-size-fits-all, a combination of these could work for you.

Light Therapy

Light boxes have been around since the 1980s. Doctors often prescribe them to help mellow the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. You should sit in front of one of these special lights for 20 to 60 minutes every day, ideally in the morning.

It tricks your body and convinces it that you're outside and under the sun. This helps balance your melatonin and serotonin levels. People with SAD report feeling better a few days or a few weeks after they start this treatment.

Mental Health Counseling

Despite all that, mental health counseling is still one of the best ways to go about tackling SAD. A licensed mental health professional can help you find healthy coping mechanisms. They can also prescribe the best light box for your needs.

Medication

Medication can also help, especially those with severe SAD symptoms. If your seasonal affective disorder is drastically impacting your life, it may be a good idea to see your primary care physician. They could prescribe antidepressants, which might give you the boost you need to go back to living your life.

Setting a Routine

One of the best ways to keep seasonal affective disorder at bay is to have a clear routine. Especially now that many of us are working from home, it's healthy to have structure to our days. Wake up at the same time every day, have a good breakfast, and get to work or studying (if you have to). Going to bed at the same time every day and having consistent meal times is also great.

Practicing Self-Care Techniques

Self-care is also crucial. Take care of yourself to avoid falling into a deep SAD slump. It's a good idea to sleep eight hours every day, eat delicious nutritious meals, and get your body moving.

Don't beat yourself up if you don't have enough energy to tick off everything from your to-do list. You'll get to try again tomorrow. Find a rhythm of self-care that works for you—and stick to it.