Seasonal affective disorder during COVID-19: What to know

During the winter months, the nights tend to get longer, and the days feel shorter. You might notice that you’re struggling to maintain the energy you once had. On top of that, you may be spending more time at home and in isolation, due to COVID-19. While it may feel overwhelming to manage, there are steps you can take to acknowledge these feelings and find ways to get help.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is more than feeling a bit down about the lack of warm weather and sunshine. It’s a form of depression that is tied to seasonal changes that affects up to 3 percent of the population. By far, the most common form of the disease takes place in the winter months. For many people, the symptoms of SAD may ease with the onset of spring or summer. 

girl leaning against window


With December being Seasonal Depression Awareness Month, it may be helpful to understand what seasonal affective disorder might look like.

COVID-19 and SAD

With the ongoing pandemic, SAD may be a particular concern this year. If you’re already struggling while staying at home, it may feel like a “double whammy” when the days get darker. Additionally, if you’ve struggled with SAD year after year, feelings and stress surrounding COVID-19 may only accentuate those issues. 

“This is a time of lots of stress, in general,” said Dr. Randall Solomon, a behavioral medical director at Optum. “One of the things that depression does is makes it more difficult to manage stress. We always have this buffer of how much we can tolerate before we enter crisis or overwhelm mode. Depression shrinks that buffer, a lot.”

Causes

The reason some may experience SAD is not fully understood but scientists believe that it stems from a disruption to daily rhythms (also known as circadian rhythms) from the change in daylight. One of the most important daily rhythms to our overall well-being is the sleep-wake cycle. When this gets out of sync with the day-night cycle of winter months, it may cause problems with sleep, behavior and mood. 

Symptoms

Some of the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder may include:

  • Feeling hopeless
  • Oversleeping or problems with sleep
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having intrusive thoughts of death or suicide
  • Losing interest in things you used to enjoy
  • Feeling sluggish or more agitated easily
  • Having low energy

Additional symptoms may occur, in winter-pattern SAD, including:

  • Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • A feeling of hibernation

Treatment

Awareness may be the first step for getting help. It’s important to realize that depression is an illness, and seasonal affective disorder is no different. 

That said, as Dr. Solomon notes, when people are staying at home more often, it may be harder to diagnose depression and may require additional self-identification of the symptoms listed above. 

“Some of the issues might be masked by the fact that what we would normally use to notice problems aren’t available as much anymore,” he said. 

For example, it may be easier to hide depressive symptoms at home all day than if you had to go into an office. 

Once an awareness is established, consider talking to your doctor or a mental health professional as a next step. There are multiple options available, and your health care provider might combine them for the best effectiveness. Dr. Solomon notes a few common treatment options below:

  • Light therapy may help replace the sunshine you are missing during the darker months. 
  • Antidepressant medication might be an option that your health care provider explores with you. This is because SAD may also indicate an imbalance of serotonin, which is an important chemical in your brain that helps balance your mood.
  • Finally, talk therapy may also be effective help in coping with difficult situations to help you understand your feelings. 

Being aware of possible symptoms — and treatment options — may make your journey through the darker months of winter a bit easier. And more than that, you’ll have tools and resources to consider for the future to help you prepare for what’s to come. 

Additional resources

If you need someone to talk to, call the Optum Coronavirus Emotional Support Helpline at 866-342-6892. It’s available to anyone at no cost, with licensed mental health professionals 24/7.

If you’re having thoughts of suicide, or if you’re in severe emotional distress, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1800-273-TALK. The hotline provides free, confidential support, and is available 24/7.