Seasonal Affective Disorder

Understanding SAD and Pandemic Fatigue

March 8, 2021

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Image courtesy of Pixabay via Pexels.

As the light dwindles and the days get colder, many folks experience SAD-- Seasonal Affective Disorder. This year, pandemic fatigue has set in, making life harder for those with SAD. It’s double trouble-- twice the problems and twice issues. This double whammy may feel overwhelming and make those who suffer want to throw up their hands in defeat, but there is hope on the horizon and help available.

In this article, we’ll examine:

  • What is SAD and who is affected
  • How pandemic fatigue makes it worse
  • Ideas for managing and treating SAD, especially with pandemic fatigue

Whether you struggle with SAD or not, this article will still help you navigate this winter that is tougher than most. We’re here to help.

Depression in general affects women more than men. Why do you think that is? Image courtesy of Engin Akyurt via Pexels.

What is SAD and who is affected?

As we said before, SAD is short for Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as Seasonal Depression. It’s a type of depressive state that settles in around the fall and winter seasons when the days get shorter and colder. Summers are mostly or completely free of symptoms, and some years the colder months-- the season of the depression-- are worse or easier than others.

SAD is triggered by a sensitivity to loss of light. Sometimes this happens as early as the equinox, and other individuals don’t experience depressive symptoms until the solstice when the days are shortest. Symptoms can last until the onset of spring, sometimes until spring weather is firmly established.

Studies have shown that SAD affects 3-5% of Americans and 1 in 3 people in the UK. Perhaps an additional 10% of Americans have milder cases, possibly undiagnosed. Sufferers experience onset as early as teen years or as late as their 30’s, but some children have been diagnosed with it too. Around 6% of Americans who suffer from SAD have severe enough episodes that they need to be hospitalized. Those who live in the north are more likely to suffer from SAD as the south experiences less daylight loss and warmer temperatures overall.

A perhaps surprising statistic is that women are four times more likely than men to develop SAD, but that may be due to social pressure on men to be the “strong and silent” type. Men are less likely to admit to mental health issues in general, but it’s important to discuss it.

Most of the symptoms of SAD are the same as non seasonal depression, and include but are not limited to: troubles with sleep quality and schedule, lack of motivation or joy in normal activities, weight gain, carbohydrate cravings, lack of social interest and reduced productivity. One of the main differences is the predictability of the onset of these symptoms, and sometimes the predictability of when they ease up or go away.

We’ll discuss treatments in the last section. For now, let’s examine the effects of pandemic fatigue on SAD.

The combination of pandemic fatigue and SAD can be difficult to manage, but it’s doable. There is hope. Image courtesy of Andrew Neel via Pexels.

How pandemic fatigue makes this winter worse

During a normal fall and winter, those who suffer from SAD would have access to certain activities and services that would help them manage and combat the effects of their depression. Doctor’s offices and therapists are limiting in person contact, often relying on virtual sessions to treat patients. Stores and pharmacies are limiting the number of people inside and limiting the amount of certain products-- such as disinfectants and toilet paper-- a customer can buy. Hospitals are running out of beds, and the vaccine is hotly disputed.

It’s a lot to handle when you’re not neurodivergent, but for those that suffer from SAD, the onslaught of the pandemic and the length it's been drawn out are taking an even harder toll.

Take the loneliness and sadness that accompany Seasonal Affective Disorder. The necessity of isolating and distancing ourselves to stay safe-- and the idea that other people are potential safety threats because they could be asymptomatic-- further entrench SAD’s effects. Then it is compounded by pandemic fatigue and it’s pals, stress and anxiety.

Our brains are only hardwired to be on high alert for so long before the brain re-adjusts and accepts the stressful situation as a new kind of normal. The strain of sustaining a higher level of adrenaline and awareness wears us out, and pandemic fatigue sets in. It’s symptoms are much like depression-- anxiety, sleep issues, loss of motivation, exhaustion.

Add on top of that the strain of having children learning from home, the endless debates over the severity of Covid-19, and the safety and efficacy of the vaccines. Every time we turn around, the news is full of numbers and new cases and overwhelmed hospitals. Even our holidays were fraught with fear. The lack of ability to connect with those with love-- and the worry that infections could happen if we did-- creates a sense of loss and grief.

All of this exacerbates the symptoms and experience of SAD in a whole new way that feels particularly overwhelming. So what can we do?

Treating SAD and pandemic fatigue begins with self-honesty and communicating with your doctor about what’s going on. Image courtesy of Polina Zimmerman via Pexels.

How to cope and manage SAD and pandemic fatigue

It’s a tribute to the modern healthcare field across the globe that there are now more options than ever to treat and combat all kinds of depression, including SAD. And since pandemic fatigue has many of the same symptoms, much of what works for managing SAD should also have a lifting effect on pandemic fatigue symptoms as well.

  • Focus on what you CAN do-- this is somewhat easier said than done, but in a cognitive behavioral method, recognize when you’re focusing on “can’t” and try to find a “can.” For example, the holidays still happened, they were just different. A pandemic doesn't cancel the holiday, it just needs a different approach-- Zoom or Skype instead of in person present opening, less running around to different houses for multiple holiday meals.

But you could still decorate, open presents, and cook good food. Likewise, if you or a friend or family member has as a birthday, focus on what you can do to celebrate, and while it’s healthy to acknowledge what you can’t do, recognize when you’re dwelling on “can’t” and try to find a “can” to do.

  • Stay connected-- yes, virtual events are not the same, but they’re what we have and we need to reach out to our friends and family. If Zoom or Facetime isn’t doing it for you, try the old-fashioned phone call or break out the paper and pen and write a real letter. And tell folks that you love them and express gratitude for them-- everyone likes to hear that they are loved and someone is delighted they’re part of their life.
  • Practice gratitude daily-- you don’t have to write this down if you don’t want to, but try to set aside 1 or 2 minutes a day to think about a few things for which you are grateful. Try not to judge yourself for how small or big they are in the grand scheme of things.
  • Check in on yourself-- how are you feeling? Are you breathing correctly? How’s your posture? Take a few slow, deep belly breaths and stretch a little while you’re at it.
  • Take a walk. You are allowed to go outside with a mask on and exercise, even under most lockdown conditions. Most people can fit 10 minutes of movement into their schedule, and doing it outside gets you vitamin D from the sun and removes you from “the same four walls.” Put your phone away while you’re at it and really soak in your walk. This will have the added benefit of grounding you in the moment, which lowers stress levels and anxiety.
  • Grow your spiritual or mindfulness practice-- both of these practices help ground you by helping you to direct your focus inward and/or connect to a higher vibration or power. Meditation can also help calm you. If you have a tough time relaxing, try doing it in the shower or bathtub. There are loads of online services like Headspace that offer meditation guides, and YouTube and other streaming services have lots of brainwave music, which can also help with sleep issues.
  • Create something-- even if you don’t think of yourself as “creative” or “good at art,” creative work engages us emotionally and mentally in a healthy way. Don’t focus on being “good” or “bad” at it. Focus instead on the act of making something. It can be cooking, sewing, embroidery, leatherwork, carving, sculpting, writing, or anything.
  • Along similar lines, learn something new! Join an online class, or combine learning with creating on Skillshare or Creativebug-- Joanne’s and Michaels also offer classes. Sur la Table and Milk Street both offer virtual cooking lessons.
  • Take your medications on time and correctly, eat well, and exercise.

It’s also important to know when you might need professional help. This can include talk therapy, traditional medicines, or alternative treatments like Transcranial Magnetic Therapy (TMS) or hypnotism.

SAD does have an end in the warmer months, and it is treatable during the colder months. Image courtesy of Samson Katt via Pexels.

SAD and pandemic fatigue are very real issues that unfortunately, are highly enmeshed with each other this year, making each worse. But help is available and accessible. If you have any suggestions for navigating SAD or pandemic fatigue, let us know in the comments below.

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