Seasonal depression could be worse than ever this year

▶ Watch Video: How to avoid seasonal depression caused by daylight saving end

Over half of American adults say their mental health has suffered due to the coronavirus pandemic, and as the weather gets colder and the days get shorter, many may be feeling especially down. But in some instances, a mood change with the seasons could be a sign of something more serious — a type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

SAD is also sometimes called seasonal or winter depression, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). It is recognized in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as “Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern.”

Symptoms typically begin in the fall and winter months and usually get better as the season changes to spring. Some people suffer from SAD in the summer, though it is far less typical.

“SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in winter,” the APA explains. “As seasons change, people experience a shift in their biological internal clock or circadian rhythm that can cause them to be out of step with their daily schedule.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the condition’s signs and symptoms include those associated with major depression, as well as some that are specific to SAD. Depression symptoms may include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the time
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Problems with sleep
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having low energy
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

People with winter-pattern SAD may also experience oversleeping; overeating, especially with cravings for carbohydrates; weight gain; and social withdrawal. But people with SAD may not experience every symptom.

January and February are typically the hardest months for those with SAD in the United States, though it can last for about 40% of the year, the APA says.


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And the pandemic, as well as other stressors this year, could be making things worse.

“Those who are more prone to SAD each year could see a more severe form of their symptoms due to the additional stressors everyone is feeling — the pandemic, social unrest, the political climate, not being to see family over the holidays, etc.,” Vaile Wright, PhD., senior director of Health Care Innovation at the APA, told CBS News.

While Wright said only about 5% of the population suffers from SAD annually, it is “possible” there could be an increase in the condition this year, “due in part to the fact that many people have viewed being able to spend time outdoors as a respite during the pandemic.” She continued, “With temperatures turning colder, and fewer daylight hours available, people may be less inclined to spend time outdoors which could lead to the ‘winter blues.'”

For an individual to be diagnosed with SAD, they must “experience depressive symptoms for two or more years around the same season,” Daniel Kaplin, PhD., the president of the New York State Psychological Association and assistant professor at St. Francis College, told CBS News. So, he explained, it is “challenging to say definitively that COVID-19 is going to make SAD rise this year.”

“I would recommend researchers track mood for the next couple years to track SAD back to the pandemic,” Kaplin added. But he said SAD is “likely to be more pronounced” this year in those who do suffer from it.

Some people are more likely to suffer from SAD than others. It is more common among women than men, and begins in young adulthood in the majority of cases, NIMH said. The condition is also more prevalent for those living in northern areas where there are fewer hours of daylight in winter, such as Alaska or New England. 

SAD also occurs more frequently in people with major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder. People suffering from SAD also typically have other mental disorders, such as an eating or anxiety disorder, according to NIMH. It also can run in families and is more common in those with relatives who have other mental illnesses.

Wright said that groups disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, including frontline and essential workers, “are more vulnerable to a host of mental and behavioral health consequences such as depression, anxiety, substance use and suicidal ideation, which earlier research by groups such as the CDC has already shown.”


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Wright and Kaplin stressed the effectiveness and importance of seeking professional help if people believe they may be experiencing symptoms of SAD or are concerned about their mental health. 

“Insight-oriented and cognitive behavioral therapy has been useful in identifying the origins of the depressive symptoms and can help a client reorganize their thought patterns” said Kaplin. “In doing so, this often improves mood.”

Wright emphasized, “Diagnosis should be done by a licensed, trained professional as opposed to ‘Dr Google.'”  

Kaplin added that in severe cases, consulting with professionals who can prescribe appropriate medication could be beneficial, in addition to traditional therapy.

But he also said there are “several interventions” people can try at home that may help reduce depressive symptoms. 

Both Kaplin and Wright said light therapy has been found to be effective as a treatment for SAD. Light therapy involves sitting in front of a light therapy box, which releases extremely bright light and filters out damaging ultraviolet rays. The treatment typically calls for 20 minutes or more time exposed to the light box per day — usually in the morning, the APA said. 

Wright explained that light boxes are “most effective when used in collaboration with a provider who can help you determine how much and when to use it.”

Kaplin also said activities such as exercise, yoga and meditation can be beneficial in reducing the severity of SAD. But he stressed those activities should not replace working with a mental health professional.

Wright said “everyone can benefit from maximizing their exposure to natural sunlight” during the winter months. She explained that morning light is “best,” so starting new routines, such as drinking an early cup of coffee near an east-facing window, is a good first move. 

She also suggested taking a walk outdoors in the middle of the day to soak up the maximum amount of sun. And, if possible, bring a friend or family member along — while following proper social distancing protocols. 

“While we obviously don’t know for certain, it’s definitely possible that seasonal affective disorder could be worse than ever this year,” Wright said. But, she stressed, “it’s not inevitable if people plan ahead and take steps to both maximize their exposure to sunlight and nature, and continue to find ways to engage in self-care including maintaining social connections with other.”

Resources

In an emergency, call 911.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available for free 24 hours a day, 7 days a week:

  • Call 1-800-273-8255  (TTY 1-800-799-4889, for those who are deaf or hard of hearing)

  • Visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org to chat with someone at the Lifeline

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Disaster Distress Helpline:

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website has more information on how to get help: www.nimh.nih.gov/findhelp 

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