Seasonal affective disorder, appropriately abbreviated as SAD, is relatively common, affecting about 5% of adults every year. Seasonal depression (another term attributed to SAD) usually kicks in when the days start to get shorter and colder, and it can be just as distressing as major depression (or, year-round depression).
Due to the current circumstances, our continuing battle against COVID-19 pandemic, SAD is likely going to impact us differently this year. If you’re nervous, you’re not alone. We’re already dealing with depressing stressors and life circumstances, and now we’ve got less daylight hours and dreary weather on top of that. As if quarantine wasn’t enough to deal with!
Here’s a rundown on what exactly SAD is, as well as tips on how to cope.
How to Know if It’s Sad or Just the Winter Blues
The symptoms of SAD are similar to the symptoms of general depression. According to Jeffrey M. Cohen, PsyD, Instructor of Medical Psychology at Columbia University Medical Center, symptoms include:
- Feeling sad or depressed
- Experiencing a loss of interest in pleasurable activities
- Changes in appetite and sleep
- Loss of energy
- Feeling worthless
- Difficulty thinking and focusing
- Thoughts of death or suicide
If you’re not sure if you’re dealing with SAD or simply the winter blues, the key difference is typically whether your daily functioning is being affected. For example, someone with the winter blues might be feeling down or experiencing a loss of motivation, but it won’t interfere with their functioning. On the other hand, for someone with a disorder like SAD these symptoms will make it really hard to function at work, school, or home, according to Talkspace provider Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD.
7 Ways to Cope with SAD This Year
Coping with SAD this year is going to be different than any other year, which means self-care is more important than ever. “I used to talk about self-care tips such as engaging in exercise, eating healthy meals, and getting enough sleep. While these are still valid ways to cope, it is no longer enough in 2020,” says Cohen. “We are facing additional stressors nowadays, such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing pandemic of racism and police brutality. So I think self-care today means so much more.”
Here are seven self-care and coping tips.
1. Acknowledge and accept your emotions
The first step to dealing with SAD is the same as how we should deal with many negative emotions: acceptance. Running away from these feelings won’t make them go away, and we need to acknowledge them in order to make positive changes. “It is nearly impossible to move through a dark place if we refuse to acknowledge that we are even in a dark place to begin with,” says Ertel.
2. Use behavioral action
Behavioral action is simply (or, not so simply) getting up and doing things. “This can sound – and feel – impossible when in the midst of a depressive episode, but the research is out there to support that moving our bodies helps our minds. Start small. Get out of bed and wash your face. It doesn’t need to be a momentous adventure,” Ertel says. The more little steps you take, the better you might feel. Once you have mastered doing these small tasks, you can move onto bigger ones with more confidence.
3. Take time to unplug
The constant streams of negative news at our fingertips are not helpful for depression, so take a break from doom scrolling. Cohen says it’s important to set boundaries and honor your limits, and this includes setting boundaries with technology, and recognizing that it’s okay to turn off your TV, put your phone down, and get off of social media.
4. Use light therapy
Since many peoples’ SAD is triggered by the lack of daylight hours during the winter, light therapy is a unique and sometimes effective way of treating SAD. SAD lamps or light-therapy boxes simulate natural sunlight (without the harmful UV rays). Typically, to experience the best results, Cohen says you should use the SAD lamp 20 minutes or more per day, generally first thing in the morning. You will usually notice results within a week or two, and you should continue to use the lamp for the duration of the winter to maintain the benefits.
5. Use your support network
You don’t have to go through depression alone. Your family and friends love you and are here for you. It may feel scary at first to open up about what you’re going through, but once you do, you’ll likely feel like a weight has been lifted off your chest, and after you do, you’ll likely have the support of your loved ones to help you get by.
6. Consider therapy and/or medication
There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to mental health and seeking help. Cohen says that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most well-researched and effective treatments for depression, including SAD. Additionally, in some cases where therapy and self-care aren’t enough, medication such as antidepressants may be used. Ask your provider or try Talkspace Psychiatry for a convenient and effective way to get started.
7. Be kind to yourself
Above all, be kind to yourself throughout this process. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling the way you feel. Instead, approach this winter with an attitude of self-compassion. “Depression of any type is hard, and it is okay if you feel like you are struggling. Reach out for help if you need to, and also cut yourself a bit of a break in the process,” says Ertel.
Using a combination of these self-care tips (or all of them!) will help you get on track to being in a better place this fall and winter. Be consistent and patient with your self-care and treatment, because changes won’t happen overnight. SAD can be really difficult to cope with, especially in 2020/2021. Remember, don’t be afraid to reach out for professional help if you feel like you need it. This year, especially, nobody should suffer in silence.