As the days get shorter and the seasons begin changing, many residents of the Pacific Northwest worry about the winter ahead. For more than 3 million Americans, the colder months of the year are associated with annual bouts of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). How can we prepare for the winter blues in the era of COVID-19, and how will the novel coronavirus impact mental health in the coming weeks? Today on the blog, we’ll explore the relationship between seasonal affective disorder and the pandemic.
Seasonal Affective Disorder in the Pacific Northwest
UW Medicine refers to Seattle winters as “The Big Dark” for a good reason – we can expect just eight to nine hours of sunlight in the months ahead, and most of the time, that light will be obscured by rainclouds. Because of this, Washington residents may feel tired and unmotivated; it’s also possible that this change will result in clinical levels of depression.
Seasonal affective disorder doesn’t mean slowing down each winter, eating more and going out less. Instead, it is a clinical onset or worsening of depression, mania, or hypomania in the context of seasonal changes. Depression is by far the most common mood disorder for fall and winter, which is why it is primarily associated with SAD. People who live at higher latitudes, like those of us in the PNW, are at higher risk for this condition.
In Seattle, rain and short winter days are a fact of life. When the weather changes, many residents worry that we will break another rain record this fall and winter, or that this will be the last time they see the sun for weeks. Margaret Cashman, M.D., a psychiatrist at the University of Washington Medical Center, says:
“We’re at a northern enough latitude that there is a huge difference in the length of day between summer and winter. People who are sensitive to that are really going to notice it.”
Knowing that PNW residents are at high risk, many researchers have expressed concern about the role the pandemic may play in our mental health this winter.
COVID-19 and Mental Health
The pandemic has turned our world upside down. For many, it has catalyzed depression, anxiety, and even relapse. When you look at the stressors faced by all Americans, it’s not difficult to see why.
First, countless people have experienced some type of trauma during the past six months. The pandemic has claimed over 215,000 American lives – each of those victims is missed by their family and friends, who may not have been able to attend the funeral or say goodbye, resulting in complicated grief. Beyond this, people who have gotten sick and recovered may have gone through a frightening process of sickness, treatment, and slow recovery with lingering health effects. Both proximity to death and the experience of severe illness are considered highly traumatic events.
Additionally, the pandemic has required significant lifestyle changes. These have primarily increased isolation and reduced the availability of in-person support systems. For example, if you usually cope with stress by attending a 12-Step meeting or spending time with friends, you may have had to substitute in a FaceTime call or Zoom conversation instead.
Dr. Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, explains, “At any given time in the United States, about one-fifth of Americans have a diagnosable mental illness. It does appear that the rates of reporting of symptoms have increased from that baseline – so we’re seeing as much as 30% or 40% of Americans reporting symptoms.” He adds that this represents a two-fold increase over what would have been expected, and that these spikes in symptoms have also been associated with national crises like extreme weather events or September 11th. Now, we may see COVID’s interaction with seasonal depression.
Dealing with Winter and the Pandemic
In the pandemic, seasonal affective disorder takes on a new level of difficulty. Many people are already feeling a low-grade depression due to the state of the world; when you add in shorter days and longer nights, that mental health crisis may grow.
“If we’re already feeling some helplessness, hopelessness, irritability, confinement, and we add the winter months to it – short daylight hours, limited exposure to daylight… Those that are experiencing seasonal affective disorder are going to really be challenged,” said Scott Bea, PsyD, a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic. To cope, he recommends taking action before winter begins.
There are some steps you can take from the comfort of your own home before seasonal depression sets in.
- Lock in your routine. We’ve already established that setting a daily schedule can help to preserve your mental health in lockdown (see this blog post). It’s also helpful for battling seasonal affective disorder. Be sure that you have a plan for how each day should work. Include times for healthy meals and an early bedtime.
- Remember to exercise. Any type of exercise can help to boost your mood and reduce depression and anxiety. Get into the habit of working out on a regular basis now.
- Plan social connections. Creating a schedule of socially distanced outdoor activities while the weather holds can be incredibly helpful in reducing loneliness and isolation. Additionally, you should plan certain days to connect with different groups of friends. This can break up the monotony of winter during COVID-19.
- Buy a therapy light. Sitting in front of a 10,000-lux therapy light for half an hour each day can help to fight the effects of seasonal affective disorder.
- Seek professional help. If you’re worried about getting through the winter during a pandemic, help is available. Treatment centers like Lakeside-Milam are staffed by experts who can empathize with your situation and provide clinically sophisticated care. We recommend that you seek treatment if your depression becomes overwhelming or impacts your day-to-day life.
Worried About Seasonal Affective Disorder? We’re Here for You
We understand that the winter can be a difficult time to live up north. We’re here to help. As the largest treatment provider in the Pacific Northwest, Lakeside-Milam has the resources and expertise to restore your mental health and sobriety. Our evidence-based modalities consist of individual and group therapy sessions tailored to your needs. For more information about our treatment for seasonal affective disorder during COVID-19, please contact our admissions team.