Winter can mean less light and trigger crippling seasonal depression. Confinement due to COVID-19 has made it harder for many people to cope.
A young woman looks out of a window during the coronavirus pandemic. (Frank Hoermann/SVEN SIMON/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)
You’re not alone if being confined during the coronavirus pandemic is dampening your spirits. But those who suffer major depression in the fall and winter, when there is less daylight, are being hit especially hard because COVID-19 is making it more difficult to cope with mood swings, researchers and patients say.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 5% of U.S. adults suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which the University of British Columbia (UBC) describes as “bouts of feeling down all the time, low energy, problems with sleep and appetite, loss of interest and reduced concentration to the point where they have difficulty functioning at work or in the home.”
Those with “winter blues” might feel sad and have less energy, but SAD can be overwhelming and interfere with daily functioning. SAD typically lasts about 40% of the year and is more common among women than men.
SAD occurs only in fall and winter, when it’s colder, there’s less light and it’s more difficult to engage in outdoor activities. During the spring and summer, those with SAD feel well and “normal.”
For many, seasonal depression has been worse during COVID-19.
Students who suffer from SAD say their symptoms have been worse during the COVID-19 pandemic because lockdowns have limited their movements and contacts with others.
“Being stuck at home with even less sunlight than usual, with no social interactions to keep me sane — aside from over the internet — is almost like an extreme form of winter, and it definitely makes my SAD worse,” said Gary Moon, a 23-year-old design student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, Canada.
Moon said SAD usually makes him lethargic and often means he is not prepared for exams. This year, it has been worse. “I am less proactive when it comes to schoolwork and I don’t want to fall behind in classes,” he said.
Liam Wilson, a 23-year-old computer science student at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, said that after staying home for the last nine months, on some days he has so little energy that it feels impossible to get out of bed. “Even after getting up, I often feel very low energy throughout the day, and it can be tough to stay productive,” he said.
Wilson said the toughest part of quarantine during COVID-19 is not having anywhere to escape to. “Even just going to school every day was great for my daily routine, and it was an environment away from home where I could work and stay productive,” he said. ” Now I do work, school and leisure from the same spot every day while it’s grey and dark outside.”
Like Moon, Wilson finds it hard to keep up with school during the winter. He procrastinates more and has difficulty focusing on studying, online lectures or homework. Consequently, he feels more stress as assignments fall due, and he has to rush to finish them.
COVID-19 and SAD only add to students’ stress.
Dr. Raymond Lam, a psychiatrist and professor at UBC who specializes in depression and SAD, said he is not surprised students with SAD are feeling more depressed and stressed this winter.
“The pandemic is a stress, and for some people, they’re more vulnerable to it,” Lam said. “It makes them more depressed. That’s one reason why COVID-19 has increased the number of depressive symptoms in the general population and why we expect to also see more cases of depression. We expect that the pandemic stress is going to increase the number of people with winter depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder as well.”
Dr. Edwin Tam, a clinical associate professor and a colleague of Lam’s at UBC who specializes in mood and anxiety disorders, said that students with SAD will likely be more susceptible to suicidal thoughts during quarantine since COVID has reduced the coping mechanisms available.
Tam said that while there are no exact figures documenting the effects of quarantine on suicidal ideation, a study at his clinic covering the years 1990-1998 and involving 454 SAD patients showed that 47% had suicidal thoughts and 10% had reported an attempt at some time.
Anxiety about contracting COVID-19 only adds to students’ stress when they’re already being challenged by remote learning and exams. Quarantine due to COVID-19 is likely compounding the factors that cause SAD, as people are spending even less time outside.
“People are already experiencing low-grade depression,” said Scott Bea, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic in the United States who concentrates on anxiety and mood disorders. “We’re already feeling some helplessness, hopelessness, irritability, confinement, and soon the winter months will be added to all of it. With shorter daylight hours and limited exposure to daylight, those who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder are going to really be challenged.”
Light therapy, outdoor walks can help.
Lam said a lack of social support during quarantine is a major stressor for SAD. Seeing friends protects students against depression, especially when school is online.
“Universities look really different,” Lam said. “Students don’t have the same social supports that maybe they would have in a normal year. It could increase the number of people with seasonal depression.”
To treat SAD, Lam recommends light therapy. Exposure to bright light for about 30 minutes a day in the early morning helps curb the effects of seasonal depression, he said. He also encourages outdoor walks, saying getting outside even on dreary days can help to brighten one’s mood.
For students, Lam suggests breaking up studying and homework into smaller chunks and making a clear schedule. “This way, you can see success as you go along, rather than expecting it all to happen at once.”
To help combat his SAD, Wilson takes vitamin D supplements and, in the morning, uses a SAD light, a bright light that emulates the sun. “I also try and go outside during the day to take advantage of what little light is available during this time of the year.”
Three questions to consider:
- What are some of the symptoms of SAD?
- Why are those with SAD especially vulnerable during the coronovirus pandemic?
- If you had a mood disorder such as SAD, anxiety or depression, what treatments and/or coping mechanisms would you use to feel better?
Eva Zhu is a multi-media journalist based in Vancouver who writes about public health, social justice and music. She holds a master’s degree in Journalism and Communication from Western University and is a fellow in the Dalla Lana Global Journalism program at the University of Toronto. Zhu has written features on anti-Asian racism, COVID-19 and misogyny in the e-sports industry, among other issues.