SAD in a pandemic: Seasonal affective disorder feels worse this year

The pandemic is making the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder worse for many Canadians.

Nick Beare 3 minute read January 14, 2022
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Tough winter weather combined with shortened days is hard enough to deal with in normal years. GETTY

If you’ve been feeling down or depressed lately, you’re definitely not alone. It’s common during this time of year, when the days are shorter, there’s less sunlight and the weather is cold and grey. In fact, seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), makes up about 10 per cent of cases of depression in Canada.

Add in a global pandemic that’s filled with uncertainty and isolation, and SAD could be hitting people harder than usual.

Signs of SAD

SAD is a type of depression that occurs at about the same time of year, each year, for those that suffer from it. SAD symptoms usually start in late fall or winter, but some people experience symptoms in the summer as well.

The signs of SAD are essentially the same as major depression, according to Toronto’s Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), and is usually characterized by a sad mood that is present most days of the week and last most of the day, lasts more than two weeks, and negatively affects work or school performance and relationships. And while these are most common SAD symptoms, CAMH also includes changes in appetite, sleep problems, loss of interest in work or hobbies, a feeling of hopelessness, among others.

This year, SAD feels worse

Tough winter weather combined with shortened days is hard enough to deal with in normal years. But the resurgence of COVID-19 and the Omicron variant this winter season has certainly had a compounding affect on anyone already susceptible to SAD, and some experts believe the major stressor has changed from the challenge of isolation to the worry over what comes next.

“There’s a lot of anticipatory anxiety,” Luana Marques, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School told Time in a recent interview. “What is [this winter] going to look like?”

Certainly, there’s no question that Canadians are experiencing more challenges with mental health than ever before: According to StatCan, “one in four (25 per cent) Canadians aged 18 and older screened positive for symptoms of depression, anxiety or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the spring of 2021, up from one in five (21 per cent) in fall 2020.”

Coping with SAD

One major symptom of not only SAD — but of life in a pandemic — are feelings of isolation. Human interaction is crucial to our physical and mental health — it’s vital that we remain in contact with friends and family in any way possible, whether that be by phone, video or walks.

For SAD specifically, light therapy can be very helpful as some experts believe SAD is tied to a decrease in Vitamin D. Light therapy involves purchasing a device called a light box that sits next to you while you work or sit down. The box gives off bright light to mimic natural outdoor light.

Making sure to get outside early in the day can also help to not only get exercise, but also some Vitamin D from sunlight. And as always, if your symptoms of SAD are overwhelming, or affecting your quality of life, reach out to a medical professional.

Nick Beare is a Toronto-based freelance writer. He can be reached here


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