How to Manage Seasonal Depression

On any given year, approximately three million Americans struggle with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). But in the time of a pandemic, the population struggling with SAD could be much higher due to the need for isolation, a holiday season that will look different for many, and more uncertainties ahead.

Few things during the COVID-19 pandemic have been easy—except the weather in New England. The pandemic started at the end of winter, as the days were getting longer, warmer and sunnier, and much of the region experienced a warmer fall. Though most American adults have struggled with mental health at some point this year, the weather has allowed some relief, with plenty of sunlight and days ripe for safer, outdoor activities and exercise. But as the season starts to shift, monitoring and recognizing changes in mental health is more important than ever.

Here are the basics of SAD, how to recognize if you or a loved one is experiencing it, and what to do this year to help:

What is SAD?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons, beginning and ending at about the same time very year. If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody.

How can you recognize the signs

In most cases, those seasonal affective disorder symptoms go away during the sunnier days of spring and summer, but here’s what to look out for now:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having low energy
  • Having problems with sleeping
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

This year, with isolation and anxiety throughout COVID-19, many who would have otherwise been on the cusp for experiencing SAD may be more susceptible.

Why does it happen?

Sunlight can help regulate key hormones in your body that manage mood and energy: serotonin (mood) and melatonin (energy). For many who experience SAD, the lack of sunlight can cause a decrease in positive mood hormones and an increase in hormones that make you tired. During the pandemic in particular, where people are spending less time outside commuting, walking for lunch or getting coffee, it’s especially easy to get even less sunlight than any given year.

This article first appeared as featured content in Harvard Pilgrim’s HaPi Guide newsletter on December 23, 2020. To stay up-to-date on the latest healthcare topics such as the future of health care, new ways to be healthy or the business of insurance, sign up to receive our monthly communication:

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