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Dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder During a Pandemic

Daniel Hagon

January 28, 2021

As the winter months roll in on a blanket of fallen leaves and snowflakes, the autumnal colors of fall and the bleak splendor of the unsullied snow make each season a delight to experience for many. For an estimated 10 million Americans, however, the winter brings with it a seasonal depression called Major Depressive Disorder with a Seasonal Pattern (MDP-SP), formerly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, the symptoms of which can have a debilitating impact on their quality of life.

If you feel like you may have suffered from some form of seasonal sadness, this post will help by:

  • Explaining exactly what MDP-SP is
  • Clarifying the people most likely affected
  • Outlining the signs and symptoms
  • Identifying the causes of MDP-SP
  • What you can do to help battle the disorder

What Is MDP-SP?

If you’ve ever felt twinges of despair each time you see the leaves changing color or the first few specks of snow, it’s likely that you’ve suffered from at the very least a mild form of MDP-SP. While this may feel like a perfectly natural reaction to the encroaching darkness, it could also be the first physical effects of MDP-SP, which affects the hormonal balance of your body.

For the majority of sufferers, MDP-SP, also called seasonal depression, occurs in winter. Natural light has a huge impact on a person’s wellbeing, so when natural light is shorter and weaker throughout the winter, it can radically alter a person’s outlook and mental health. Those suffering with MDP-SP can feel like completely different people in winter, struggling to focus on their work and manage their social lives as well as maintain their own self-esteem. In the majority of cases, people feel overcome by sadness, hopelessness and stress.

These symptoms invariably pass as the season changes, so if you feel more like your usual self in summer then it is very likely that your depression is seasonal.

If you live further south, you are naturally less likely to suffer from this form of MDP-SP. However, although the winter version of MDP-SP is most prevalent, there is also a version of MDP-SP which affects people during the summer. If you feel like you are experiencing the same symptoms but only in the spring or summer months, do see a doctor to discuss your options.

The good news is that MDP-SP is treatable. With a socially distanced winter on the cards, there has never been a better time to assess your own bodily reactions to the changing seasons and take the necessary steps to ensure that this winter is your best ever.

Who Is Affected?

Between 1% and 2% of the population are affected by MDP-SP. While this may seem uncommon, milder forms of the disorder affect an extra 10% to 20% of the population, which is significant. Roughly 3 out of 4 MDP-SP sufferers are women, although men tend to have more severe symptoms. The age group most at risk is the 18-30-year bracket, with most people experiencing their first symptoms at age 20.

It is important to be aware that the illness tends to run in families, so if you have noticed that certain family members tend to be more subdued or irritated in the winter months, you may also experience the same symptoms at some point. However, the risk of getting the disorder decreases with age, so the older you are, the less likely you are to get it.

What Are the Symptoms?

Although many people may feel melancholy as they watch the winter closing in, this isn’t necessarily a symptom. It becomes a problem when your symptoms continue year after year, altering your behavior and quality of life, but return to normal every spring or early summer.

Symptoms to watch out for include:

  • Depressed mood and low self-esteem
  • Loss of interest or enjoyment in activities you used to take pleasure in
  • Decreased socialization
  • Weight gain
  • Craving carbohydrates
  • Feeling angry, irritable, stressed or anxious
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Changes in sleeping pattern
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue and lack of energy as well as reduced sex drive
  • Use of alcohol or drugs for comfort
  • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and despair

If you experience one or more of these symptoms at the same time every year but they then disappear with the changing of seasons, it may be that you have MDP-SP and you should arrange a visit with your doctor.

What Causes MDP-SP?

Whether or not you have MDP-SP is affected by three different things:

1. Circadian rhythms

Also known as your body’s internal clock, these 24-hour cycles manage the way your body functions. They respond to changes in light and darkness and help your body regulate sleep and appetite patterns as well as your mood. If your body isn’t getting enough light, your circadian rhythms may not be able to function properly, which can leave you feeling disoriented and drowsy during work hours.

2. Melatonin

Your body produces this hormone to help you sleep. Melatonin production is triggered by darkness to help you sleep. Daylight acts as a natural trigger for the brain, which stops producing melatonin so that you can go about your day feeling awake and alert. If the days are too short and dark, however, this may not happen, which can leave you feeling tired and low on energy.

3. Serotonin

This is another hormone the body produces that modulates your mood. Serotonin production is adversely affected by reduced sunlight, which can negatively affect your sleep, memory, appetite and libido.

While this doesn’t apply to sufferers of MDP-SP in the summer months, those with bipolar disorders may find that the extra sunlight triggers manic episodes. Additionally, the production of serotonin for summertime MDP-SP sufferers may actually be reduced, leading to depressive symptoms in the summer.

What Can I Do About MDP-SP?

There are several simple things you can do to try and reduce the impact of MDP-SP, although if these seem impossible you should immediately go and see a doctor to set out a suitable treatment plan for your symptoms:

1. Get out in the sun

Get outside for short periods, either for a short walk or a hot drink if it isn’t too cold. It may be hard to motivate yourself to do it but it can help. Sit by the window, keep the curtains open. Even painting walls a lighter color or using daylight simulation bulbs can have a massive impact on mood.

2. Exercise regularly, particularly towards the end of summer

Again, it can be hard to motivate yourself to do this when it’s cold, but this boosts your body’s serotonin levels as well as endorphins. Exercise is as effective at fighting depression as antidepressants. It also improves your quality of sleep and self-esteem. Continuous, rhythmic exercises, such as walking, weight training, swimming and dancing, are considered to be most effective.

3. Reach out and connect with friends, even if you don’t feel like it

This can help boost your mood. Reconnect with those you’ve pushed away or drifted apart from, or maybe take up that class you’ve been thinking of doing for a while. Some people find volunteering helps improve self-esteem.

4. Eat well

Sources of serotonin include oatmeal, whole grain rice, brown rice and bananas, and omega-3 fatty foods, which include oily fish, walnuts, soy beans and flaxseeds, can help improve your mood and enhance the effects of antidepressants.

5. Try and reduce your stress

Figure out why you might be stressed and take steps to reduce it. If your workload is too much, take a step back. Practise relaxation techniques daily if you can — yoga and meditation may be helpful. Do something you enjoy every day.

6. Light boxes and dawn simulators

These may be recommended by your doctor anyway, but these are readily available online and may help you get ahead of the curve this winter.

7. Plan a vacation in the early new year

This may not be possible during a pandemic, but if your circumstances allow you to fly south for the winter for a couple of weeks, take full advantage and let your body soak up that sun.

Treatment for MDP-SP

Of course, not all depression is caused by MDP-SP, so before self-diagnosing make sure you pay your doctor a visit to find out whether there are other underlying factors. Although a definitive diagnosis of MDP-SP may take some time, your doctor will be able to prescribe you specific treatments to help if none of the above tips have worked.

For depression in general, patients are often prescribed antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as well as being encouraged to exercise. These more rigorous treatments may be ideal for you. As mentioned above, light therapy, from light boxes and dawn simulators, may be recommended by your doctor, while meditation and psychotherapy may also be effective.

If you feel you would like to speak to someone for support, you can call the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline on 1-800-950-6264. Alternatively, contact your personal doctor so you can discuss your symptoms with him today.