Seasonal Depression May Be Worse This Year — Here's What To Do About It

Clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist By Daniel Amen, M.D.
Clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist
Daniel Amen, MD, is a clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist, physician, professor and 10-time New York Times bestselling author. He is a double board-certified child and adult psychiatrist and founder of Amen Clinics, Inc.
A Neuropsychiatrist Warns Seasonal Depression May Be Worse In 2020

It's that time of year again. No, not pumpkin spice latte season but rather the darker days when seasonal depression sets in. The winter blues affect about 14% of Americans, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) hits an estimated 6% of us. With the added stress, loneliness, and doldrums of the pandemic, this could turn out to be one of the SADdest seasons ever.

Why SAD might be worse this year, more than ever.

A recent survey in JAMA Network Open found that the rate of depressive symptoms has tripled since the pandemic hit. I created the term "pandemic squared" to describe this phenomenon, and how COVID-19 has been multiplied by another pandemic of psychological issues, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and addiction. Now, add in shorter days, less sunlight, and colder weather, and it's another round of pandemic squared—this time with SAD.

What causes SAD? Research shows contributing factors may include abnormal regulation of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, increased production of melatonin, and decreased levels of vitamin D.

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How to combat pandemic-induced SAD.

Here are some simple ways to brighten your mood even when everything seems gloomy:

  • Bright light therapy: A 2017 study shows that bright light therapy can be effective in treating SAD and may also help with focus, energy, and sleep. Choose a therapy lamp that has 10,000 LUX brightness and sit near it for about 30 minutes in the morning.   
  • Check your sunshine vitamin levels: At Amen Clinics, we test the vitamin D levels of all of our patients, and a staggering number of them have low levels. Check your level, and if it's low, take a supplement.
  • Boosts serotonin naturally: Consume complex carbs (hello, sweet potatoes!), try incorporating regularly exercise (particularly HIIT), and consider supplements like 5-HTP and saffron.

While these tips may help, it's important to note that if you're experiencing prolonged feelings of depression or other symptoms of mental illness, please consider reaching out to a medical professional for help. If you or someone you love is experiencing suicidal depression, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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