COVID-19 is making a gloomy season even darker for people struggling with seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

SAD is a type of depression related to the changes in season. People with SAD feel unmotivated or depressed when days are shorter in the fall and winter. It’s much more serious than, for example, just being down about a cold, dark weekend – SAD can last four or five months.

Dr. Liju Varghese

Mix in the mental fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and it can become a double whammy for SAD patients.

“Many people here in the U.S. are already experiencing depression and anxiety symptoms due to limited social interactions, lack of routine, job loss, political climate and other stressors,” said Dr. Liju Varghese of Novant Health Psychiatric Medicine - Thomasville. “SAD is only going to exacerbate their condition.”

Symptoms of SAD

Some symptoms of SAD overlap with those of typical depression, but there are many variations, Varghese said. In some cases, symptoms are so severe that it can cause serious mood changes and affect the way someone feels, thinks or behaves.

Common symptoms include:
• Feeling depressed

• Irritability

• Feeling hopeless

• Low energy levels

• Oversleeping

• Overeating and weight gain

• Social withdrawal

“In children, they may become more irritable or fussy and may not show much interest in playing with their toys,” she said.

Get relief for your SAD

Varghese said typical management of SAD includes:

• Light therapy (also known as phototherapy) - It involves spending time, especially in the early morning and early evening, in front of a special therapy lamp that mimics natural sunlight, which can lift your mood. Usually it involves 30-45 minutes each day.

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Act now

SAD patients may have low levels of vitamin D, which can be resolved by spending time in the sunlight.

If work or school prevents you from doing that before it turns dark on weekdays, try to schedule outdoor activities during a lunch break or on the weekend. Exercise outside if it's sunny. Even reading next to a window can be beneficial.

• Medications - Talk to your primary care physician about your symptoms, which will help determine a treatment plan that could include antidepressants.

• Counseling - Talking to a counselor can be helpful to identify coping strategies and improve your self-care. During the pandemic, many therapists can see their patients through virtual visits that can limit your exposure to viruses.

Many people benefit from their daily social interactions, at work, school, through recreation and within their family. But, because the COVID-19 pandemic has postponed or limited many people’s routines, it’s important to continue to make the effort in a safe way.

“This year everyone should take extra care of their mental health,” Varghese said. “You should still attempt to call friends, family and learn to interact virtually. Plan activities with your immediate family members or closest friends in a safe manner. Create a routine or structure in your day. Consider going for short drives. It is also important to eat healthy and get regular exercise.”