Experts concerned about seasonal affective disorder this winter, amid pandemic

Posted at 10:29 PM, Nov 24, 2020

The pandemic, and much of the isolation that has come along with it, has prompted a lot of discussions about mental health. Now, as the winter months approach, psychologists are concerned about the impact seasonal affective disorder, or seasonal depression, might have.

"And we think that it is because of reduced light and at a more reliable time late in the year, usually around spring, summer, those symptoms resolve. And so, we come into 2020 and it's a completely different landscape right now, and honestly, we don't know what to expect yet," says Dr. Craig Sawchuck, a clinical psychologist with the Mayo Clinic.

Dr. Sawchuck says there is some speculation that seasonal depression rates could increase this year.

"Kind of think about it like people are operating at a deficit right now. With the number of stressors that have been going on in 2020, just the erosion effect has been wearing folks down, so maybe folks that have struggled with winter blues in the past, so maybe not full-blown seasonal depression but winter blues, you layer in the erosion effect with the stress and maybe that's going to put them more in the range of depression," says Dr. Sawchuck.

Social isolation from the pandemic and any unhealthy habits that might normally form in the winter months could exacerbate seasonal depression.

"Energy goes down, we want to sleep more, there's that urge for carbohydrate cravings, increased weight gain and socially pulling back or withdrawing," says Dr. Sawchuck.

Experts say if you suffer from winter blues or seasonal depression, there are things you can do to try and boost your mood.

"Seasonal depression and treatment during this time is a little tricky. Some of the things we would recommend are hindered by COVID-19, especially with the escalating rates. So, things like getting outside might be risky for some people with the transmission of COVID -19, so we’re thinking about some of the basic things to just take care of yourself. What are your coping skills? What are things that do get you involved and happy and excited?" says Dr. Apryl Alexander, a psychologist and professor at the University of Denver.

Dr. Alexander says a recent study from the American Psychological Association reports that eight in 10 Americans are feeling stressed because of COVID-19. Even though we're in a pandemic, Dr. Alexander says it's still important to socialize, especially if you are prone to seasonal depression.

"So, how can you maintain those social connections during this time, whether its dance parties we’ve had in our department during COVID-19 to engaging with your family members on Zoom or other forms of social media," says Dr. Alexander.

Dr. Alexander also says many psychologists and therapists are offering virtual sessions, so it's important to take advantage of tele-mental health visits. And with the holiday season approaching, whether you're able to be with family or not, make sure you also take the time to check in on loved ones who may not be feeling themselves this winter season.