Seasonal Affective Disorder in 2020

Driving in my car, I was thrilled to hear my favorite public radio station start a segment on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Like many doctors and other professionals who treat mental health conditions, I’m worried about this winter. Darkness comes earlier in Minnesota now, and climbing coronavirus numbers have separated us from loved ones at Thanksgiving. Things look bleak some days. Unfortunately, the radio story was a fluff piece! There is more helpful information about SAD.

Causes

Winter Seasonal Affective Disorder comes on when the days get shorter, and is commonly a time of low energy, carb cravings, and sleepiness.  Sometimes it is a full-blown seasonal depression. One important cause of SAD is the disruption of the circadian rhythm caused by the shorter days. Some people notice a big difference when the clocks “fall back.” With less sunlight, your brain makes less serotonin, which can lead to depression or SAD. Your brain produces the hormone melatonin when it gets dark, so melatonin overproduction may be the problem for people with SAD, causing them to struggle with excessive sleepiness.

If you have SAD, you may experience it differently each year. The worry this year is that with people in their homes more due to the pandemic, they could be more at risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder, and those who have SAD every year may find this year is more difficult. The counselor the radio journalist interviewed was vague–if you think you’re a little melancholy or bluesy, then maybe consider reaching out to a therapist? They suggested opening your blinds to let light in, which is not a bad idea, but not likely to be therapeutic if you’re really feeling down.

The radio story got this right.

Planning a schedule for your day, with time for regular sleep, exercise, and self-care that fits in with your essential duties is a helpful idea!

Go outside in the morning, even on a cloudy day. Natural light on your face will help you.

Schedule time with loved ones–even if they are virtual visits.

Consider getting a SAD lamp! 

You’re worried about getting depressed this winter, or you’re already depressed. Your sleep schedule is off. You can hardly wake up for work in the morning. It feels like bedtime, when actually it’s just barely dinnertime. Your main SAD symptom is a lack of motivation or energy. Morning light therapy can help you with any of these things!

You need a UV free, 10,000 LUX lamp. If it doesn’t say those two things, then it’s not a therapeutic lamp. A psychiatrist friend and I recommend the following companies to our patients with depression and SAD, and neither of us makes money if you buy from them. Verilux, out of Vermont (www.verilux.com), sells Verilux Happy Lamps at a great price point. Northern Light Technologies in Canada (www.northernlighttechnologies.com) has more choices on lamp styles. 

Pro tip: YOU MUST CHANGE THE BULBS EVERY 2 YEARS! If you have a SAD lamp at home, you probably need to change the bulbs to get the 10,000 LUX level. Otherwise it won’t work as well for you. Most bulbs in your house you replace when they go out, but this one you change every 2 years on a schedule.

To use the lamp, turn it on near your face with your eyes open (not sleeping) for the best effect. Start at 10-20 minutes early in the day, and work your way up to 30-60 minutes, depending on what you need. Many people read, have their morning coffee, or work on their computer while next to their lamp.

Do you need a therapist? 

If you’re wondering if you need a therapist, you probably need a therapist. Counselors do virtual sessions these days. 

Other reasons to get a therapist:

You can’t figure out how to schedule that sleep, exercise, self-care, time with your SAD lamp, or time outdoors. It’s all too much.

Your SAD issues are affecting your relationships. You’re irritable with family members, friends, co-workers, or customers.

You just can’t cope. 

You’re feeling sluggish or anxious.

You feel guilty or worthless.

You can’t concentrate.

You have thoughts of death.

The struggle is real. You don’t have to tough this out. There is good help out there.

Vitamin D

Low vitamin D levels are associated with both winter and depression. Ask your doctor if she recommends vitamin D for you.

When to call your doctor:

You’re feeling down for days at a time, and the joy is gone from activities that you normally enjoy. You’ve lost your motivation, and maybe you’re turning to alcohol for comfort. Your sleep patterns and appetite have changed. You feel hopeless or helpless. You think about suicide.

THE HARDEST STUFF

If you think you’d be better off dead, generally wish you were dead, or have thoughts of harming yourself of killing yourself, please call your doctor,  a person you trust, or a suicide prevention line right away.

United States National Suicide Prevention Line: 800-273-8255

“Take Your Damn Medicine.”

This may be my all-time favorite Glennon Doyle quote. If you’ve had some depressive swings during Covid, it’s time to make an appointment with your doctor and consider that you might need medication this winter. If you’ve ever used medication for SAD in the past, check your medicine cupboard now, and find out your pharmacy’s policy on delivery for refills in case you can’t go in. You won’t lose your creativity, you will gain productivity, and you won’t lose yourself in this season.

Winter is coming.

The radio story I heard got this part right: make your plans this week! Don’t wait until you’re sliding down the hill of depression or sleepiness. Get a lamp, order new bulbs, or plan outdoor morning daylight time. Reach out and schedule regular dates with your pandemic bubble or Zoom friends. Make appointments with a therapist. Check that mental health medications are up-to-date, or make an appointment with your doctor if you’ve had some untreated depression. There’s just no reason to tough it out this year.

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