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Nov. 18, 2020, 12:48 p.m. EST

How to cope with seasonal depression in an already challenging year

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Ronni Gordon

This article is reprinted by permission from  .

If you suffer from seasonal depression and worry about your risk factors should you get the coronavirus, this winter could be tougher than usual.

Shorter and cooler days are already limiting opportunities for the boost that comes from socializing and exercising outdoors, where rates of transmission of COVID-19 are lower than indoors. The specter of diminished holidays, a 6.9% unemployment rate, a third wave of the virus and more than 238,000  coronavirus deaths  add to the mental health risks this winter. But there are things you can do.

“People have really embraced the outside as the safest place and relied on their ability to be outside to bolster their mental health,” says Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation for the American Psychological Association. 

“The more you can prepare, the better you’ll be,” Wright says. “Think proactively about ‘What can I do to utilize the outside more?'” For example, she says, maybe invest in an outdoor heater, already a hot commodity.

Seasonal depression, also called winter depression, seasonal affective disorder or SAD, is linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in winter. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that  about 5% of adults in the U.S. experience SAD . Symptoms include depression and fatigue, carbohydrate cravings, increased appetite and weight gain, and withdrawal from other people.

“The further north you go, the more the rates of seasonal impairment go up,” says Dr. Paul Desan, director of the  Winter Depression Research Clinic at Yale University.  

“Plenty of people don’t meet the criteria for major depression but feel lousy in the winter,” he adds. “Fifteen percent have a symptom that causes depression that they would like treatment for. And ninety percent of people will say they feel different in some way.”

He says that more time indoors with dim light and less time driving to work in bright light in the morning has exacerbated the problem.

“I’m worried about this year,” Desan says. “The rates of seasonal changes will be worse.”

Also see: People of Black and Asian descent up to twice as likely to get COVID as white people: meta-analysis

Though never diagnosed with SAD, Robin Farmer, a 59-year-old writer who lives in Mechanicsville, Va., had all the symptoms when she worked in Connecticut at The Hartford Courant newspaper. “It was a sense of feeling blue, low energy, anxiety. I would stuff my face with carbs to feel better. I remember going back to the apartment and turning on every light,” she says. “I have way more anxiety this year. I have COVID fatigue, and I’m anxious about the coming winter.”

See: Pandemic fatigue, and other the reasons COVID-19 cases are surging again

She is not alone. A survey by Mental Health America, conducted from January to September 2020, found that the number of people with moderate to severe depression and anxiety increased through 2020 and was higher than in the same period before COVID-19.  The number of people looking for help with anxiety and depression has skyrocketed,” according to the report.

Dr. XinQi Dong, director of the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research at Rutgers University, notes that hurricanes in the South and fires on the West Coast are also pushing people inside. 

People with SAD can have double the trouble: their usual symptoms and what the pandemic has wrought at a time of year when they are especially vulnerable.

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