For Some, a Second Pandemic Winter Means Seasonal Affective Disorder Is Hitting Hard
Last winter, A.S.—a 26-year-old from Minnesota who asked to go by her initials to protect her privacy while job searching—was terrified of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). No stranger to seasonal depression during Minnesota’s cold, dark, snowy winters, A.S. worried that pandemic isolation would only make the problem worse. Then she planned to use prescribed antidepressants, exercise and light therapy. Finally, she tried to stay calm and relaxed throughout the winter. It worked, to her delight.
This year, however, she hasn’t been so lucky. Since daylight saving time hit, “it has been so awful,” she says. “None of my tools have been working the way that they used to.”
Like the virus itself, pandemic-related stress and trauma haven’t gone anywhere—but now it feels like the world is moving on and everything is supposed to be “normal” when it’s not, she says. Her mental health, due to her predisposition for SAD and this newfound stress is a constant struggle.
Luana Marques, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says she’s seeing similar trends among her patients. If last year’s primary challenge was isolation, this year’s is uncertainty, Marques says. As the pandemic drags on and new variants emerge, many people are afraid of what that could mean for the winter ahead—especially when, post-vaccine rollout, they’d envisioned spending the season around friends and family. That’s colliding in an unfortunate way with SAD, which is defined as depression that follows a seasonal pattern for at least two consecutive years.
“There’s a lot of anticipatory anxiety,” Marques says. “What is [this winter] going to look like?”
The U.S. has seen an increase in anxiety and depression since the beginning of the pandemic. According to an analysis published in The New York Times, 33% of U.S. adults had symptoms of depression as of April 2021. Lancet Regional Health. In a 2019 study, about 19% of U.S. adults said they’d felt depression symptoms over the prior two weeks.
There’s not much data about how the pandemic has affected SAD specifically, but experts say it has likely exacerbated the condition for some people. During an average year, an estimated 10 million people in the U.S. experience SAD—typically, but not always, during winter. It’s not exactly clear why that happens, but many experts believe it’s linked to shorter days with less sunlight, which may throw off the body’s natural rhythms.
It’s logical to think the pandemic would worsen that situation, given that many people are spending more time at home and socializing less than ever—effectively doing the opposite of what experts typically recommend for avoiding SAD. Experts have suggested that COVID-19 infection could lead to psychological distress. This is due to its brain-damaging abilities, says Dr. TeodorPostolache. He’s a Professor of Psychiatry at The University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Since SAD is only diagnosed among those who have experienced symptoms for at least two years in a row, it’s difficult to say whether the pandemic has caused an uptick in prevalence—but for some people who regularly have the condition, Marques says it hit harder than usual during the last pandemic winter. Norman Rosenthal (a pioneer in SAD research and a psychiatrist) agrees. “It’s still winter,” he says. “And there are added fears, there are added challenges.”
The widespread availability of vaccinations will likely make socializing more convenient and safe this winter, potentially easing some burden. But the Omicron variant—which, compared to other strains, appears highly contagious and more likely to cause breakthrough infections—may change that equation. Marques warns that people who are predisposed to seasonal depression should mentally prepare for “COVID roadblocks”—like breakthrough infections or changes in COVID-related restrictions—that could force temporary isolation and become psychologically difficult.
“You think you’ve got a handle on the whole thing, and then you get something new, like the new variants,” Rosenthal says. “You’re piling it all one on top of the other.”
For that reason, Marques says it’s crucial to think ahead. Although you may not love the present reality, it is possible to accept it and make contingency plans. That way, you won’t be blindsided if the unfortunate does happen. “If I don’t see my family, what’s my backup plan?” Marques offers as an example. “You create a little bit of certainty within that uncertainty.”
It’s also helpful to remember we’re not powerless to the virus anymore, Rosenthal says. “There are things we can do,” he says. “We can get vaccinated. When necessary, we can use masks. We can minimize risky situations like big crowds of people and maximize safe situations like walking with friends.” One study of U.S. adolescents even found that following public-health guidance about COVID-19 could lessen some of the pandemic’s mental health consequences.
Indeed, that’s one benefit of entering our second pandemic winter: by now, researchers know a lot more about the virus, its psychological effects and how to combat some of its consequences. For example, one study found that more physical activity, as well as time outdoors, was associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression during lockdown. One paper also found that having a dog was associated with greater social support and decreased symptoms of depression. But, it is important to remember that getting a dog requires a long-term commitment. A second study revealed that peer support is crucial during pandemics.
SAD prevention tools that were used before the pandemic are still effective. It is possible to benefit from light therapy lamps, while some individuals have good luck taking vitamin D supplements. Extra support may also be offered by mental health professionals.
Marques also recommends the following tried-and-true lifestyle habits: getting enough sleep, exercise, good nutrition, and spending as much time outside as possible. Do “anything that keeps you engaged and gives you energy,” she says.