November 24, 2020

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Lifestyle Changes During COVID-19 May Help Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Experts say lifestyle changes in diet, exercise, and sleep can help people deal with the shorter daylight hours of winter. Westend61/Getty Images
  • Experts say people who have seasonal affective disorder may find it easier to cope with the winter’s shorter daylight hours because of lifestyle changes they’ve already made due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • They say habits such as healthy diets, regular exercise, and a consistent sleep pattern can help with the seasonal disorder.
  • To help ease the symptoms of the disorder, experts recommend people set up a support system, limit their media exposure, and increase their exposure to sunlight and other light sources.

A silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic may come in a form that feels almost like a warm ray of sun.

Experts say that people who fight seasonal affective disorder (SAD) could get through this winter season with a little less angst.

That’s because, experts say, people who are affected by this disorder may have already adopted practices during the pandemic that will offset the impact of the semiannual time change.

Practitioners who treat those with the disorder say the lifestyle changes from last spring’s lockdown and the following months of restrictions can positively impact those who struggle with SAD.

“This has definitely been the case for a certain percentage of the population,” Craig Sawchuk, PhD, LP, a psychologist at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, told Healthline.

Sawchuk said at the outset of the pandemic, health experts were guiding everyone to maintain a normal daily routine, regulate their sleep, eat well, and exercise regularly.

“Which are all of the things that help us feel better at any time in our lives,” he said.

For those battling SAD each year, those are key steps to getting through the darker season, he noted.

Angela Thoreson, LICSW, a therapist at the Mayo Clinic, said that even in the summer months, people were adhering to lifestyle changes that build up a kind of tolerance to SAD.

“People were required to slow down and take stock,” she told Healthline.

Thoreson said she was happy to see people taking time to think about the important things in life, how they can best spend their time, and how to put plans into action.

“SAD is like any other mental health issue,” she said. “The first steps are lifestyle changes.”

Changes that many are making, she said, include getting outside and exercising more (outdoor sports such as cycling and hiking experienced a boom this summer), cooking healthy meals, and connecting with family and friends in a meaningful way.

Rachel Foster has struggled with SAD most of her adult life, something she believes ties back to both her parents having lost their mothers early in life in January.

“Just after Christmas, we just went dark,” she told Healthline.

Foster believes both her therapy for SAD and the timing of the lockdowns helped her last spring.

“Because I was at the very end of my cycle of light box therapy and general ‘hermit hood,’ I didn’t really feel like I was struggling too much when work from home was mandated by my employer,” she said.

But by summer, Foster felt herself slipping a bit earlier than usual.

“I started noticing struggles in late July to early August with the realization that I hadn’t been having my preferred social time between April and October along with a weak work/life balance, and started fading into early symptoms of SAD,” she said.

Solution? Foster went back to light box therapy along with the other practices her doctors suggest sooner than usual.

Now, she feels more ready to slide into the “dark season” than past years.

So what exactly is seasonal affective disorder?

“SAD is very much like a hibernation syndrome,” Sawchuk said. “We feel blah. Motivation goes down. We feel perpetually tired. We want to sleep more. We crave carbohydrates and gain weight.

Sound familiar?

Sawchuk points out that many people who have been struggling during the stress, isolation, and uncertainty of the pandemic have been experiencing similar symptoms.

He explained that with SAD there is disruption of the sleep-wake cycle with diminished light exposure during the day.

In the pandemic, these symptoms could be accounted for by stress and loss of structure.

Sawchuk said the underlying pathology may be different between the two situations, but the symptom and functional outcomes may look remarkably similar.

Sawchuk said people with SAD may find more support this winter because people can understand what they’re going through better due to their own experiences during the pandemic.

“Indeed, compassion for the struggles of others may be one of the silver linings from the pandemic,” he said. “Another silver lining that is important is all the altruistic things people and communities have been doing for each other. We do get the opportunity to see the good side of human nature during times of tragedy.”

Thoreson points to a few symptoms that could suggest SAD, including:

  • Lack of enjoyment or interest in activities that are usually welcoming.
  • Lack of motivation and energy. “That ‘Eeyore feeling.’ You know, ‘Oh bother, here I go again,’” Thoreson said.
  • The urge to, she said, “stock up on all the carbs.”

“I’m guessing we may see more (cases),” Thoreson said. “Those who have struggled in the past in the winter months but not to the point of needing help may feel they do (need help) this year.”

What to do if you’re feeling those symptoms beyond the lifestyle changes?

Sawchuk suggests:

  • Set up healthy, regular, and positive personal support within COVID-19 allowances. Fun Zoom calls as well as regular phone calls with friends and family who “build you up.”
  • Limit media exposure. “There is so much negative news these days, but it’s still important to stay educated and informed. Set reasonable limits on your media consumption. Think about what you are feeding your brain. A general ‘prescription’ is 15 to 30 minutes per day, up to two times per day,” Sawchuk said.
  • Increase light exposure, and try to get outside every day even when it’s cold. Fresh air and direct sunlight help.
  • Consider light box therapy. “Evidence-based guidelines, including using a 10,000 lux intensity light box within the first hour of waking up in the mornings. Use for 20–30 minutes, keep it about 3 feet away, keep your eyes open, and keep using until the time of year (spring) when your mood reliably improves,” Sawchuk said.

If none of the above tips help, seek professional help.

Foster has kicked her light therapy as well as those other steps into high gear and feels ready to get through this most unique winter with SAD on board.

She hopes others, whether they’ve experienced SAD in the past or feel symptoms now, will be proactive as well.

“I do think there are people who are realizing that it’s been an issue in the past, and the pandemic is just amplifying things,” she said. “I have been urging people to try light box, try vitamin D supplementation, try lunchtime walks and sunshine exposure as much as possible.”

Sawchuk agreed.

“This may be a long and difficult winter,” he said. “It’s always good to get a ‘running start’ of healthy habits heading into the fall/winter season.”