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How To Cope With COVID-19 and Seasonal Affective Disorder

Illustration of a woman wearing a mask surrounded by COVID virus.

Nuthawut Somsuk/Getty 

Key Takeaways

  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) occurs during the winter and is often referred to as the winter blues. The condition can cause feelings of sadness for people living in colder climates who endure long, dark winters.
  • SAD is a form of depression. While it is not uncommon to feel down during the colder months of the year SAD is more severe and can interfere with a person's everyday activities.
  • There are many ways to treat and cope with SAD, even during a pandemic.

As the global COVID-19 pandemic approaches the one-year mark, conversations about social isolation and mental health are only growing. In the U.S., winter is approaching, and long summer days of sunshine have given way to colder, and darker evenings.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, 5% of adults in the U.S. experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is a form of depression that spikes during the wintertime. Now, experts are concerned about the overlap between SAD and COVID-19 associated mental health effects that may occur this year as winter picks up.

This issue is only growing. Public health experts were concerned about an epidemic of loneliness in the U.S. even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What This Means For You

Seasonal affective disorder can affect anyone. If you have the condition, the winter months of the year can be especially difficult. You might be having a harder time coping this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you need more support, reach out to a mental health professional. Whether you use light therapy, medication, or just have someone to talk to, taking care of your mental wellness will help you cope with SAD symptoms and stress related to the pandemic.

COVID-19 and SAD

With a pandemic that shows no signs of slowing down, many people in the U.S. are still under shelter-in-place orders and are confined to socializing with those in their own household.

According to data from the U.S. census, more than 33 million Americans live alone. With COVID-19, that means no social contact at all for millions of people—potentially for months on end.

In an opinion piece that appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine, several doctors—Rebekah Mannix, Lois Lee, and Eric Fleegler—wrote about the mental toll of safety protocols. 

“The United States faces an unprecedented combination of a public health and economic disaster," they said. "The physical distancing necessary to curb transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 has disrupted social networks. Many people live in isolation, and the mental health of the population will likely suffer.”

Experts worry that winter will make COVID-19 fatigue worse. “In some ways, the ongoing stress makes us feel as vulnerable as little children,” relationship consultant Janice Presser, PhD, tells Verywell. “We crave contact, and we can’t get it. At that point, as adults, our reasoning kicks in and we are capable of making a choice. It might be a bad choice —putting ourselves and others at risk—or we might try creative alternatives like Zoom parties.”

Janice Presser, Ph.D.

In some ways, the ongoing stress makes us feel as vulnerable as little children.

— Janice Presser, Ph.D.

Talking with family or a friend can be helpful, but you might feel that you need to talk to a counselor or therapist. If you feel overwhelmed by the prospect, keep in mind that the pandemic has in many ways made it easier to access mental health care via telehealth. You might be able to chat with a therapist on the phone or a video call about SAD to see if they are a good fit for working with you on managing your symptoms.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Many people feel a bit down when winter rolls around and the days get shorter, darker, and colder. However, SAD is a serious condition that is more than a touch of the blues.

While anyone can experience SAD, most people with the condition first report symptoms between the ages of 18 to 30. The condition is more common in women than in men.

Symptoms of SAD

Symptoms of the condition typically last about 40% of the year and can include:

  • Feeling depressed or sad
  • The inability to enjoy once-pleasant activities
  • Changes in appetite; eating more often, craving carbohydrates
  • Change in sleep patterns; usually sleeping too much
  • Increased fatigue despite increased sleep hours
  • Inability to sit still or pacing, handwringing or low-level movements or speech (these must be severe), or an increase in purposeless physical activity
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Having difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
  • Suicidal thoughts or thoughts of death

Risk Factors

SAD is diagnosed more often in women than in men and occurs more frequently in younger adults than in older adults.

There are certain factors that might make it more likely that you will experience SAD, including:

  • Family history. If you have relatives with SAD or another kind of depression, you might be more likely to experience them yourself.
  • Having major depression or bipolar disorder. If you have a mental health condition like major depression or bipolar disorder, the symptoms might get worse seasonally.
  • Living far from the equator. If you live at one extreme (north-south) from the equator, you might be more likely to experience SAD. In these parts of the world, you might have long, sunny summer days and not much sunlight during the winter.

Treatments for SAD 

The National Institute of Mental Health outlines four main categories of treatment for SAD, which can be used individually or together to help someone manage their symptoms:

  • Light therapy. This treatment involves spending time, especially in the early morning and early evening, in front of a special lamp that simulates natural sunlight, which can lift your mood. Usually, you do this for 30 to 45 minutes each day.
  • Sunshine. If you don't have time to get outside for some sunlight during the week (because of school or work, for example), schedule outdoor activities on your lunch break at work or on the weekend. On days when it's sunny, get outside for exercise or even just read near a window.
  • Talk therapy
  • Antidepressant medications

When to Get Help

If you feel down for weeks at a time, cannot find the motivation to do activities you usually enjoy, your sleep patterns and appetite have changed, you turn to alcohol or other substances for comfort or relaxation, or you feel hopeless or are thinking about self-harm, it's time to talk to a trusted healthcare provider.

Your physician can help you connect with a mental health professional who can help you get treatment for SAD and learn to manage the condition. As we all try to cope with the pandemic and learn to live with a "new normal," taking the time to tend to your mental health is more important now than ever.

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Article Sources
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  1. American Psychiatric Association. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Updated October 2020.

  2. Hawkley LC, Cacioppo JT. Loneliness matters: a theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanismsAnn Behav Med. 2010;40(2):218-227. doi:10.1007/s12160-010-9210-8

  3. United States Census Bureau. One-Person Households on the Rise. Updated November 19, 2019.

  4. Xiong J, Lipsitz O, Nasri F, Lui LMW, Gill H, Phan L, et al. Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on mental health in the general population: A systematic reviewJ Affect Disord. 2020;277:55-64. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2020.08.001

  5. Mannix R, Lee LK, Fleegler EW. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and firearms in the united states: will an epidemic of suicide follow?. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2020;173(3):228-229. doi:10.7326/M20-1678

  6. Mayo Clinic. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Updated October 25, 2017.

  7. National Institute of Mental Health. Seasonal Affective Disorder.