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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Seasonal affective disorder and COVID-19 fatigue expected to overlap during upcoming winter season

The pandemic may aggravate mental health conditions, but there are ways to cope

As the weather grows colder, the season of “winter blues” has drawn upon us. With COVID-19 fatigue already dampening people’s moods, this winter may be particularly difficult for people coping with pandemic-induced stressors and mental health issues, especially for those with seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

According to Kaye Hermanson, a psychologist at the UC Davis Medical Center, SAD is a variant of a mood disorder and a form of depression characterized by oversleeping, overeating and social withdrawal. In addition, some symptoms are similar to major depression such as feeling depressed, loss of enjoyment in activities and low energy. Although the cause of SAD is not yet fully understood, Hermanson explained that some research shows possible causes include decreased serotonin or overproduction of melatonin during the winter months.  

While these symptoms may sound similar to the “winter blues” many experience, Paul Hastings, a professor in the department of psychology, elaborated that SAD is more than just an amplified version of the phenomenon. He explained that although there is a normal slowing of our bodies during winter, SAD is more than the general lethargy everyone can resonate with. SAD requires that the diagnosed individual shows a pervasive and enduring pattern of variation in their emotional and physical well-being during the winter season to the point that it affects their ability to complete everyday tasks.

“[Those with SAD] are not experiencing positive emotion,” Hastings said. “They are lethargic. They are irritable to the extent that it’s interfering with their abilities to have positive relationships with people in their lives [and] to get their work done. It’s quite a bit beyond what most of us think of when we use common terms of ‘I feel depressed.’”

Although Hermanson stated SAD usually varies depending on geography—the disorder is more prevalent in cold and dark regions—she hypothesizes that COVID-19 has forced many people into some form of a seasonal affective pattern as they experience social withdrawal. In addition to not being able to gather with families and friends, it has also become increasingly difficult to engage in activities which usually enhance the release of serotonin. Instead, many are forced to stay inside and quarantine, often leading to oversleeping and overeating. 

Hastings added that there is evidence that COVID-19 affects people with pre-existing mental health conditions in more serious and severe ways than it affects the general population. For example, those with anxiety disorders may be experiencing the pandemic as particularly stressful or emotionally distressing. Hastings also explained that the main alleviators of depression are social support and physical activity, which have become harder to attain.

“The public health regulations [to curb the spread of COVID-19] could make things even worse or even more challenging for people with seasonal affective disorder to deal with,” Hastings said. 

Despite the limitations that the current pandemic poses, Hermanson encourages people to look for alternative treatments to alleviate their symptoms. As leg therapy and vitamin D are traditional therapies for SAD, she suggested trying to have some form of outside activity while continuing to socially distance. Hastings added that fortunately, depression is very responsive to treatment, and combinations of psychotherapy, talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapies still seem to be effective, albeit remote.

Rowen Clayton, a fourth year human development major and co-programming coordinator for the UC Davis Mental Health Initiative, explained that when the pandemic first began, the wording of “social distancing” contributed to her reluctance to reach out to others. Rather, she believes that it is important to remember to emphasize physical distancing while staying socially connected through remote mediums. 

“I think it’s really important to remind ourselves that we should be ‘physical distancing’ instead of ‘social distancing,’ because there’s so many ways to stay connected, […] such as talking over Zoom with your friends—or Skype, Facetime—and also just communicating over Instagram,” Clayton said.

Hermanson added that in addition to these treatments and therapies, it is important to be aware of our thoughts concerning our current situations.

“Half of what we experience isn’t necessarily the situation that we’re in, but it’s our thoughts about the situation,” Hermanson said. “Our thoughts really cover so much more of our experience than we realize, and our thoughts are often rapid and they can often be negative.”

Because of this, Hermanson encourages reframing our thoughts to be less negative and brainstorming creative ways to evoke joy. She described some ways people in her neighborhood have been coping with the pandemic, like putting up clear plastic tents outside with space heaters or decorating their houses with Christmas lights. Hastings added that because the remote live-at-home nature of how we are coping with the pandemic is not natural to humans as a social species, it is important to practice self compassion and self care. 

“For people who are feeling tired, who are feeling that this is getting to be more than they can handle, they should accept, acknowledge and respect those feelings,” Hastings said.  “They’re completely legitimate. [People] should take those as a sign that they need to step back or slow down or give themselves some time to get recentered, and not treat it as [just] a feeling.”

Although the pandemic has put many people in a state of hopelessness, Hermanson and Hastings both emphasized that the end is within sight. As news of vaccine distribution has been published, Hastings encouraged people to recognize that a solution to their current situation is nearing.

“I personally think with all of the news about the vaccine, it’s given some of us—it’s certainly given me—a renewed hope that we can see possibly the horizon of this, that this isn’t going to go on for years and years and years,” Hermanson said. “We can get through the winter and it will be challenging, but when we get to spring there may be some much better news.”
Written by: Michelle Wong —science@theaggie.org

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