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Countering seasonal depression during the COVID-19 pandemic

Man with his head in his hands, sitting in front of a Christmas tree The holiday season can be a stressful time of year for many people. (Photo by Army Lt. Col. Keith Hickox, Joint Forces Headquarters, Pennsylvania National Guard.)

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The recent winter holidays are traditionally seen as a time of celebration and gathering with friends and family.

However, many people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) may already feel that December and the New Year is a time of depression and worry. As we look to 2021 still facing travel restrictions, social distancing, the possibility of sickness from COVID-19, and now uncertainty about a vaccine – those who suffer from SAD are apt to have an even more difficult time over these winter months."

SAD, or sometimes called seasonal depression, is a subtype of a major depressive disorder. According to a National Institutes of Health, symptoms of SAD are varied, and may include feeling depressed most of the day, changes in weight or appetite, feeling sluggish or agitated, social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”), oversleeping, feeling hopeless, and having difficulty concentrating.

Those suffering from SAD might find themselves extra stressed and worried about family members, travel, and finances, which can contribute to feelings of depression.

If the pandemic— coupled with SAD— have you feeling out of control, you’re not alone. The pandemic has made many people feel as if they are out of control. “Recognizing our lack of control can be an important first step in coping,” explained Army Capt. (Dr.) Jacob Eliason, a psychiatry resident at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Eliason encourages helpful lifestyle changes to help mitigate these symptoms. These include regular exercise, a healthy diet, and getting 8 hours of rest per night.

Sometimes, however, patients who experience more disruptive mood symptoms may benefit from therapy or antidepressants. “Vitamin D supplements are [also] occasionally used to treat seasonal depression,” Eliason continued.

He also suggested sunlight therapy on sunny days, “Both are typically inexpensive and low-risk treatments but should be undertaken on an individual basis under the guidance of a [healthcare] provider.”

Another way to combat seasonal depression is partaking in fun social activities. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and new social distancing guidelines throughout the country, this may be more difficult. The CDC has counseled people to maintain social distancing when possible, and to wear masks when distancing isn’t possible. Our loved ones may have medical concerns or issues we aren’t aware about, so their preference toward social distancing and mask wearing should be respected.

“In this time of year, when many of us spend time with people outside of our normal social sphere, it is important to have respectful and proactive communication with friends and family members about pandemic precautions,” said Eliason. “In fact, it is often easiest to set ground rules before social gatherings by contacting the host and letting them know what adjustments you are willing to make regarding mask wearing, food preparation, and seating arrangements.

For some people, it might mean being a little creative this season,” Eliason added.

Seasonal Depression and COVID-19 don’t have to stop us from enjoying family and friends during the pandemic. Even if we can’t be physically near, showing love and compassion to those closest to our hearts is important.  “Be willing to listen to [family and friends] if you sense they are struggling with their mental health,” said Eliason, adding that, “If low mood or anxiety continue to be disruptive, people should not hesitate to get in touch with a medical or behavioral health provider.”

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