Surveys conducted throughout 2020 show that many Americans have already been struggling with symptoms of depression for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That fact could turn the fall and winter months into a serious mental health battle for those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression that many adults face annually during the upcoming period of shorter days and less sunshine.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, SAD affects about 5% of adults in the U.S. It is about four times more common among women than men, typically starts between the ages of 18 and 30, and can run in families. It can range from mild to severe. Its symptoms are similar to those of major depression, and can include:
• Persistent sadness and low mood
• Sleeping more or difficulty awakening in the morning
• Loss of energy or increased fatigue despite increased sleep hours
• Increased appetite (especially for carbohydrates) and/or weight gain
• Reduced work productivity
• Withdrawal from social contacts
• Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
• Thoughts of death or suicide
These symptoms usually begin to appear gradually throughout September and October and last through March or April.
Although SAD can interfere with daily functioning for some people, it can be successfully treated, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. A regular exercise program, sticking to a structured schedule each day to stay busy and keep the mind engaged, and maintaining social interactions – even if many of those are virtual this winter – all can help to improve symptoms.
Sitting in front of a light box that shines at a level of 10,000 Lux for 30 minutes each day, preferably early in the morning, is another proven treatment. If symptoms are too severe for patients to handle on their own, cognitive behavioral therapy and medications can also bring relief.