woman wearing glasses staring out window possibly sad or depressed

Winter And COVID-19 Isolation: The Perfect Storm

Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Amidst a Pandemic

It’s not uncommon for people in Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as shorter days signal the onset of winter months. This year holds an additional challenge: limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in diminished activity and more isolation in our social lives, making all of us more vulnerable to depressive thoughts.

Symptoms of SAD

“People who have mild forms of SAD may be more likely to experience moderate or severe symptoms this year because of the coronavirus,” said Catherine Langdon Bougie, MS, LPC, a Mental Health Clinician with ThedaCare Behavioral Health-Menasha. “We have a diminished opportunity for social interaction in the winter, and with limits on social gatherings, that feeling of isolation may increase.”

Theories about why SAD occurs are focused on imbalances in the hormones melatonin and serotonin, which help regulate sleep and mood respectively, Bougie says. The disorder is more common in people who live in northern climates. Signs you may be experiencing SAD include:

  • A depressed mood or mood changes that occur with the change in season
  • Feeling less motivated
  • An increased desire to sleep

Finding Ways to Cope

This year, the coronavirus pandemic means favorite activities and events that people often look forward to, such as attending Packers games, going to holiday work parties or hosting gatherings with friends and family, are either not an option or will be made more difficult by social distancing. That can compound a sense of isolation for people who are already feeling a growing sense of disconnect, Bougie explained.

She suggests the following methods for managing symptoms of SAD:

  • Set aside time for self-care activities each day
  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule
  • Have consistent meals
  • Exercise
  • Connect safely with friends and family

People may need to take extra steps such as dressing up in winter gear and having cider outside, but that social interaction is worth the extra trouble, Bougie said. People also have found relief in engaging in a hobby several times a week, performing the activity for a set amount of time, even if they don’t really feel like it at first.

Light therapy, or sitting in front of an inexpensive, UV-safe light therapy box in the morning for 30 to 45 minutes, can provide some relief from SAD. Before beginning any light therapy, people should consult with their primary care provider.

“It’s normal to have some days when you feel down,” Bougie said. “If you feel down for days at a time and you can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, and those symptoms become severe, it could be time to call you provider. They’ll work with you to develop a plan to help you through this time.”

If you’re having trouble managing SAD symptoms on your own, including difficulty getting through the day, taking care of yourself or your family, or having suicidal thoughts, please contact ThedaCare Behavioral Health at 920.720.2300.