How To Manage Seasonal Affective Disorder During a Pandemic

Bella Cutean, Assistant Editor

As daylight savings time falls upon us and we enter into the month of December, many say goodbye to the colorful leaves and begin to gear up for another Michigan winter. Yet there are some that find themselves getting ready for something much more concerning than some chilly weather:. Seasonal Affective Disorder. This is most commonly known as seasonal depression, which is defined as a form of  depression that befalls individuals during the fall and winter months when there is less sunlight. SAD or seasonal affective disorder lessens for many when the spring months commence, but the months when SAD does occur prove extremely difficult for many. Boston University estimates that SAD affects 10 million Americans when this time of year rolls around.  Keep in mind that everyone is also in the midst of a global pandemic, which has thrown countless individuals into depressive states with extreme anxiety and these coming months are not about to make these feelings any better. 

Pandemic-induced depressive states and anxiety have befallen many since the beginning of the first lockdown and even before that. This form of depression can be situational or it could be a more intense form of depression for those that already struggle with their mental health. The percentage of adults who had depression symptoms before the pandemic was 8.5%, and that has increased to 27.8% as of mid April. This is an entirely other topic to unpack, but trying to relieve SAD this particular fall and winter may help make this very difficult time feel less heavy. Nor only is SAD difficult in general, but for those who already struggle with depression it can feel almost debilitating. This can be seen firsthand when talking to those who struggle with SAD and who can put into words what it truly feels like. My friend, who wishes to remain anonymous and will be referred to hereafter as Hazel, perfectly summarizes what it is like to go through everyday life when it is SAD season. A large part of understanding SAD is being aware that those who struggle with it know when it hits by how their emotional states are altered. “It always begins around Halloween and I hit that feeling of dread and guilt. All of my mental rock bottoms have been in the wintertime, and I hit a new low each year. Obviously, it’s not like a flip of a switch but once the new year hits I begin to feel the hope of the new beginning, enough hope to eventually feel better. I’m aware of it because it’s a cycle that’s hard to ignore, I am two completely different people during the summer and the winter and I wish I could change it but I know it’s something I must go through each year” said Hazel, when recounting the way she personally feels when SAD begins

 SAD also can take a large physical toll on individuals who live with it. “Physically, I am always tired and so heavy. I feel as if I am dragging myself through every basic task, just waiting for the moment I can fall back asleep. I sleep way too much during the day which leads to me staying up all night, which means I get even less sunlight. The darkness is exhausting, especially when it is never ending,” responded Hazel, when I asked her about how SAD physically impacts her.  The limited hours of sunlight during the day is difficult, but combining this with the gray winter skies can make it easier to sleep all day and harder to get outside because of the frigid temperature. “The lack of daylight is a huge factor to SAD. Obviously, there is the chemical component where I am not getting enough serotonin. But there is also the point where days seem to elapse. I wake up and then all of a sudden it’s night time. It’s difficult to stay motivated during the minimal hours of sunlight,” Hazel said. Sunlight is essential for those who struggle with anxiety and depression as well. Getting sun increases the amount of serotonin that the brain produces which is another reason why SAD can be so hard for others as we can see through the personal account from Hazel. 

 So what are the best ways to alleviate SAD so that its collision with pandemic depression is not so severe? There are countless resources for students to explore. . CNN put out an article about what seasonal depressive disorder could look like this year with advice from a certified mental health professional. Jaime Blandino who is a clinical psychologist and cofounder of Thrive Center for Psychological Health in Decatur, Georgia knows plenty about what SAD is and how it affects individuals. 

A huge part of lessening the effect of seasonal depressive disorder is to get ahead of the worst part. Figuring out a plan for those cold winter months before you are in the midst of them is essential. “It’s easy to get creative when you’re not already in that depressed place,” said Blandino. A main recommendation is identifying what specific things bring you joy such as music, movies, or journaling and be ready to enjoy these activities extra during those late fall and winter months. Others include getting specific lamps that resemble sunlight to boost serotonin levels, trying new recipes in the kitchen, planning some fun pandemic-friendly activities, and of course, if necessary seeing a therapist or some kind of mental health professional.

 Milford High School Counselor’s have put out Mental Health resources for students, mainly because of the shift to full virtual but also because mental health should always be a priority. There are four main resources that were put out to serve as Mental Health Support. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800- 273- 8255 – This resource provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress and prevention and crisis resources for you and your loved ones. Common Ground Crisis (Distress) Center/Suicide Prevention Center: 800-231-1127 – free and confidential counseling, information and referrals for individuals facing a crisis. You can also visit their website for instructions regarding how to text or chat 24/7.  Michigan Stay Well Counseling via the Covid-19 Hotline: 888-536-6136 (Press “8” to talk to a Michigan Stay Well Counselor) – counselors are available 24/7 (confidential and free) for people experiencing emotional distress in the context of the Covid-19 crisis.

 Seasonal affective disorder befalls many. It is important that individuals are educated about what exactly this form of depression is, and ways that it can be lessened or alleviated. Mental health struggles are never something that anyone should be ashamed of and when discussing issues like SAD it may become evident that there is a name for the way that many find themselves feeling around certain times of the year. During a global pandemic and especially at these times of  year when seasonal depressive disorder occurs, it is essential to be kind and empathetic to all.