For some, this time of year can bring an unfortunate change in mood and behavior that, for many, is part of a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD looks a lot like depression because symptoms include a disinterest in activities one usually enjoys, a retreat from friends and loved ones, a drop in energy levels, difficulty getting out of bed, and eating more – particularly sweets and starches. Unlike depression though, symptoms of SAD don’t persist all year. Instead, they last for about four of five months, often beginning in late fall or early winter, and lasting through summer. Nonetheless, that’s no short time period. For some, SAD impacts their lives for more than a quarter of the year.
It’s estimated that SAD affects 10 million Americans and that another 10 to 20 percent of Americans suffer from a mild version of the condition. And now, most Americans are stuck inside due to the pandemic. Going outside and seeing friends are two activities that can help combat the symptoms of SAD, but those are activities to which we don’t have full access right now. We spoke with Jordan A. Madison (IG: @therapyismyjam), Licensed Clinical Marriage & Family Therapist and founder of Therapy Is My J.A.M LLC, about tips for alleviating symptoms of SAD during the coronavirus lockdown.
A look at the risk
The coronavirus pandemic has so far existed during the months not associated with SAD. But now, the two will overlap. Even during the warm and moderate months the pandemic has existed, it’s wreaked havoc on America’s mental wellbeing. Anxiety, depression, trauma-related disorder symptoms, suicidal ideation, and substance abuse have all increased due to the pandemic. The winter months can also trigger an increase in such issues. Research has found that suicidal ideation increases for young adults during the winter, as does schizophrenia.
Get light; natural or otherwise
Madison recommends opening your blinds or curtains first thing in the morning to allow natural light in. If your home isn’t designed to allow in much light, or you simply want the benefits of light before or after the sun rises and sets, Madison also recommends purchasing a therapy light specifically made for SAD. Studies have found that light therapy can cause an improvement in mood after as little as 20 minutes.
Get out however you can
Even though winter climates can make outdoor activities more challenging, Madison still recommends those suffering from SAD symptoms to bundle up and do something outside. Research has found that the part of the hippocampus that regulates mood tends to be smaller in those suffering from depression, and exercise promotes cell growth in that part of the brain. It also boosts endorphins and other feel-good brain chemicals.
Get fresh air
Madison recommends getting fresh air. Studies have found that prolonged exposure to air pollution has been associated with an increase in symptoms of depression. Getting out in fresh air can also promote regulation of natural breathing (our breathing can become strained or dysfunctional in areas of high pollution), and that regulation benefits a part of the brain that’s involved in anxiety and stress.
Madison suggests planning a trip so you have something to look forward to. You’ll naturally have to take the proper travel precautions, given the current pandemic. But, human happiness is dependent on our ability to make plans and have something to look forward to. According to research, we have positive feelings associated with future events, as we believe they’ll have more power over our emotions than past ones. While the pandemic poses some challenges in making plans, it’s important for mental wellness to find a way.
Have a morning routine
A morning routine is very important during this time, says Madison. That could involve exercise, meditation, or stretching. But sticking to some sort of morning routine can impact the rest of your day. The importance of the morning routine has been of interest to many experts. Several books have been written on the matter, and one author argues that the time you wake up and what you do in the morning has a major impact on your success in nearly every area of your life. Some experts say having a routine helps us feel more in control of our lives, and allows for the stress-reducing belief that life is somewhat predictable.
Stay in touch with friends
Stay in touch with friends, any way you can says Madison. “Do not literally isolate yourself. You can still talk to friends, or get out of the house and have fun while social distancing.”
To provide some proof of the power of socializing, research has found that having a social circle can reduce the impact of both genetic and environmental factors that affect psychological health.
Keep your brain active
“Have a movie night, start a new series to binge, do puzzles, start a book club, or do a multitude of other indoor activities that keep you stimulated,” advises Madison. Research has found that brain teasers and other such activities that give you a mental challenge can provide a small reward for your mind that helps combat negative emotions. Maybe the public knows it, and that’s why puzzles sold out so early during the pandemic.
Try yoga or meditation
Madison recommends practicing meditation or other exercises that help you feel grounded. Research has found that meditation better helps you ignore negative thoughts and that 30 minutes of daily meditation can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. If you aren’t big on meditation, know that even simple yogic breathing has been found to minimize depression symptoms in those who did not fully respond to antidepressants.
With any of these tactics, it’s important to be proactive, and understand that it’s easier to take these steps before symptoms occur than once they’re already taking place. If you don’t yet have a therapy lamp, purchase one early – before symptoms begin. Schedule regular socialization – even if it’s just over Zoom – in advance, as you may not feel like making such plans once symptoms set in. There can be power in committing yourself to things that will be good for you, but you may not feel like doing once they come along, like online exercise classes and virtual hangouts with friends. Let stable you do today what SAD you will thank you for tomorrow.
By Julia Austin