Experts On Call: How Do I Manage The Compounding Effects Of SAD & COVID-19?

Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine & Psychiatrist By Roxanna Namavar, D.O.
Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine & Psychiatrist
Roxanna Namavar, D.O. is an adult psychiatrist focusing on integrative health. She completed her residency training at the University of Virginia Health-System and currently has a private practice in New York City.
dark/night time/seasonal affective disorder
This year has been one of the most challenging years in modern history, one that has taken a toll on our mental and physical health. To help you through it, we launched Experts On Call, a new series in which top-tier health and well-being experts answer your questions—however big or small—to help you find solutions, put together a game plan, and make each day a little bit easier. Don't forget you can ask questions anytime, and we'll do our best to find the right expert to point you in the right direction. Without further ado, here's our first edition of the series with a question from reader Kayla S.

Any tips on managing the stresses of season changes on top of COVID? I feel suffocated more than normal by the idea of impending winter and gray, overcast days that get dark at 5:30. 

Kayla S.

While seasonal depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) have affected many in the past, mental health experts suspect the effects will be greater this season. In other words, you're not alone in those suffocated feelings, but there are ways to help.

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Why are dark days more dreadful this year?

Generally, people associate chilly seasons with warm feelings of cuddling inside with a blanket, a fire, and a warm mug of cocoa. After months of forcibly being cooped up inside, though, it's only natural that the impending dark, gray days would be met less eagerly this year. 

On top of the mental side effects of COVID-19 and social isolation, seasonal changes (at the end of spring and fall) can exacerbate feelings of depression and anxiety. The winter, in particular, leads to hibernation-like symptoms, which can manifest as overeating, oversleeping, and feeling withdrawn, to name a few. 

These mood shifts are biochemically related to the circadian rhythm, light, and temperature, so manipulating these resources can help manage the symptoms. 

How to manage the stress of darker days:

1. Utilize light therapy. 

Research has shown that light therapy, which mimics sunshine in dark months, can help regulate serotonin levels and decrease depression, even during the darkest of evenings. 

How does it work? Melatonin (which regulates the circadian rhythm) spikes when the sun goes down, signaling to the body that it's time to sleep. Of course, when the sun sets at 4 p.m., hardly anyone in the modern world is ready for bed. This confuses the body and can lead to a plethora of sleep issues, creating a feedback loop that affects serotonin levels and mood. 

By turning on a 10,000-lux light box (which is about 20 times brighter than a standard indoor light bulb), the body is able to stay more alert. Just turn it off and use blue-light glasses when it's actually time to start winding down. Combining a light box with red light therapy may be extra beneficial. 

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2. Pay attention to your nutrients. 

One of the big things we have to look at is our essential nutrients and vitamins. Vitamins and minerals are an essential factor in cellular functioning, and if we don't have the appropriate amount of vitamin D or magnesium, for example, we're also going to have mood shifts. Lacking in these vitamins can lead to more restlessness, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping. 

A few key nutrients for winter months: 

  • Vitamin D
  • Magnesium
  • Folic acid 
  • B vitamins 

Diet, outdoor exposure, and health history can all cause variations in people's nutrient needs. Talking to your doctor about a more personalized supplementation plan can be helpful. 

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3. Shift your perspective. 

A lot of people are struggling with feeling out of control right now. And with everything happening in the world, that makes sense. But recognizing that SAD is something that can be treated and controlled can give you more power to manage it. 

4. Seek out support. 

This year is particularly difficult because we're all feeling isolated. Finding someone to trust and confide in can go a long way, whether it's a mental health provider, medical doctor, family member, friend, partner, or co-worker.

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5. Take action early. 

In the winter, sluggishness is one of the first SAD symptoms to hit. Before your body starts to slip into hibernation mode, order your light box. Just the simple act of ordering the light box can help you reclaim control, then you can set up a system for utilizing it. 

Additionally, taking time to get outside around noon every day, before it gets too cold (or even when it is), can help increase vitamin D levels and exposure to natural sunlight. 

6. Work out first thing in the morning. 

Exercising first thing in the morning can stimulate a cortisol spike, which can help wake you up. And no, it doesn't have to be a two-hour yoga class (unless you want it to be). Short-burst exercises will be just as effective. 

Jumping for 30 seconds on and 30 seconds off for five minutes will actually shift hormone levels, along with the added benefits of an endorphin rush. These other HIIT or stress-releasing exercises may help manage your mood. 

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Bottom line.

Experts On Call

We're launching a new series in which top-tier experts in mental health answer your questions.

Seasonal affective disorder tends to affect a lot of people, but given the stress of this past year, the effects may be heightened—particularly for people with a history of depression and anxiety. Be mindful of your energy levels and your mood as the days get darker, and try to implement the tips above to keep the SAD at bay. Working with a therapist if the feelings persist or worsen may also be critical. 

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