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How to deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder during COVID season

It starts with bringing in a little light during a dark time.

For many of us, winter means shorter days, longer nights and less time spent outside — and if you suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), that lack of daylight can lead to a lack of energy or reduced interest in your favorite activities. Some people experience insomnia, anxiety or even depression as a result of the annual change of seasons.

Seasonal affective disorder would be hard enough on its own, but this year we’re also dealing with a global pandemic and continued civic unrest. Many of the activities that got us out of the house during the summer — long walks, outdoor dining — become more difficult and less rewarding during the colder months, and we’re all going to have to work a little bit harder to avoid isolation and remain connected to the people we love.

How can you manage the negative thoughts, sleep disruptions and low moods associated with this seasonal depression while also navigating the constant stresses of COVID? We reached out to Meredith Prescott, a licensed clinical social worker who helps young adults and couples navigate relationships, anxiety and chronic illness; and Anjani Amladi, a board-certified psychologist who recently authored a children’s picture book, When the World Got Sick, to help children and their parents talk about the hardships COVID has brought into their lives.

So, what is seasonal affective disorder and how can you avoid it during COVID? Here’s how these experts suggest staving off seasonal depression and practicing self-care during what might otherwise feel like the darkest days of the year.

In this article:

Let natural light into your home

“Seasonal affective disorder is connected to changes in light during the fall and winter months, specifically shorter days which means a decrease in sunlight,” Amladi told us. To make the most of the limited sunlight exposure many of us experience during the winter months, your first priority should be to let as much natural light into your home as possible.

Both Amladi and Prescott recommended opening window blinds and curtains during daylight hours to avoid the winter blues. If the weather is warm enough, Prescott suggests opening some of your windows as well — that way, you get the benefits of both sunlight and fresh air.

What if the weather doesn’t look particularly sunny? Open those blinds and pull up those window shades anyway. Our bodies respond to sunlight even during a cloudy day, and getting natural light into your home is one of the best ways to increase your daily sunlight exposure and help combat the effects of SAD symptoms.

Go outside during the day

In addition to getting as much natural light into your home as possible, you can also maximize your sunlight exposure and stave off SAD symptoms by going outside during daylight hours. Yes, the weather is getting colder (and, in many cases, wetter) — so you’ll want to dress appropriately when you go outside. In addition to your mask, think about wearing cold-weather gear that can be layered. If you plan on spending your outdoor time exercising, for example, you’ll want items that can be unzipped or removed as your body heat rises.

Our experts both recommend prioritizing exercise, by the way — especially outdoor exercise during daylight hours, if you can go outside safely. It might be difficult to balance daytime exercise with the demands of working, parenting and online schooling, but if you can go outside and get active for even a short period during the day, the results should be worth the effort when fighting off winter SAD.

“Exercise regularly even if it’s only 15 minutes a day,” Prescott advises. Eligible Haven Term policyholders who have access to Haven Life Plus can use fitness and meditation app Aaptiv to find home workouts that can be done outdoors and/or indoors — and if you do plan to exercise inside, consider working out in a room with a lot of natural light.

Invest in light therapy tools

If you can’t get a lot of natural light in your home, aren’t able to go outdoors during the day and/or continue to experience the effects of SAD even after exposing yourself to daily sunlight, it might be time to consider light therapy. “Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, mimics sunlight,” says Amladi, “and can be used to help replace a decrease in sunlight during the fall and winter months.” Prescott agrees: “Purchase a light box. This light mimics sunshine and can help in the recovery from SAD.”

You’re probably already familiar with the concept of the “SAD lamp,” but you might not realize the specific requirements associated with an effective light therapy tool — or how to maximize the benefits of phototherapy. “The way light boxes work is that the light passes through the eye stimulating retinal cells in the process, which connects to the hypothalamus in the brain, which helps to regulate melatonin and serotonin levels in the body which are helpful for sleep and mood,” Amladi explains. “You will need a light box that is 10,000 lux to be effective.”

Once you have your 10,000 lux light box, sit near your box in the morning to mimic exposure to sunlight. Amladi suggests sitting two feet away from your light box and viewing it from an angle. “It is not necessary or recommended to stare directly at the light.”

If you are on medications that are photosensitive or have health conditions that are affected by light exposure, Amladi recommends consulting with your doctor before using a light box — and if you’re planning to buy a light therapy device online, use a trusted review site like Wirecutter or CNET to ensure that you’re getting a high-quality tool.

Take a Vitamin D supplement

Outdoor activity might be difficult during a COVID winter, and light therapy boxes can be expensive — but one budget-and-quarantine-friendly way to combat the effects of winter SAD is by taking a daily vitamin D supplement. “Vitamin D deficiency is very common, especially during the fall and winter,” Amladi explains. Since sunlight is one of our primary sources of vitamin D, taking an over-the-counter supplement can restore some of the vitamin D you might be missing out on.

“Over-the-counter supplements are relatively inexpensive, and can provide significant benefits with regard to mood and overall physical health,” says Amladi. “As with all medications and possible interventions, talk to your doctor to determine what strategies are right for you.”

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Get quality sleep

Want another inexpensive-but-effective tool for staving off SAD during a seasonal change? “Get quality sleep,” says Prescott. Poor-quality sleep can affect everything from mood to energy levels, and remaining in a constant state of sleep deprivation can have negative effects on your immune system and your ability to manage stress — both of which are crucial during a global pandemic. Increased sleep can help SAD sufferers feel more energized and alert throughout the day.

While increased sleep itself does not necessarily eliminate the causes of seasonal affective disorder, getting good sleep might make the effects of SAD easier to manage. If you’re having trouble winding down at night, consider a guided meditation (like the ones in Aaptiv and other apps) to help you get into the right headspace for sleep — and don’t forget about other sleep hygiene recommendations like “keep your bedroom cool, dark and quiet” and “avoid screens before bedtime.”

Here’s one more sleep tip: Since your body’s circadian rhythm is already affected by the lack of daylight, it’s extra important to stick to a consistent bedtime and wake-up schedule, even on weekends. “Maintain a routine,” says Amladi, “including waking up at a decent time.” That way, your body will know when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to get up — even without the assistance of external cues like sunlight — and you might even sleep more soundly.

Stay connected to friends and family

Another way to manage the stresses of both COVID and SAD is by reaching out to your loved ones. “It’s important to stay connected to friends and family, even if it’s only possible to see them virtually,” says Amladi. “Humans are wired for interaction and generally do not do well in isolation.” Check in with the people you care about, and see what happens if you give yourself enough time to talk about what’s important to you — whether that’s your struggles to adjust to the lack of sunlight or the way your kids are showing resilience during these unprecedented times.

While many of us are doing our best to stay connected to friends and family over Skype, Zoom and FaceTime, some people are also looking for safe ways to meet up with loved ones in person. “Go for a walk outside,” suggests Prescott, “or have dinner outside with heaters pending your comfort level.” The CDC has guidelines for reducing the risks associated with outdoor gatherings, including spacing chairs at least six feet apart, wearing masks when fewer than six feet from other people and bringing your own food and drink. If you plan on meeting with other people outdoors, try to put as many risk-reduction strategies into play as possible — and keep in mind that these strategies will reduce, but not completely eliminate, the possibility of transmitting COVID-19.

Seek mental health support

Our experts offered one more piece of advice for dealing with seasonal affective disorder — and that’s to seek professional mental health support. “Talking to someone who is an objective party can help with creation of coping skills, provide extra support, and can also assist with identification of negative thought patterns that may be adversely affecting you,” Amladi explains.

Finding a therapist can feel daunting, but there are many online resources to help you get started with treatment— and there are also plenty of telemedicine services that can help you schedule a mental health appointment without leaving your house. “With the expansion of telemedicine, it’s possible to find a therapist online if you don’t feel comfortable going to an office,” says Amladi. “And you can see them in the comfort of your own home.” That’s one way to make the process of getting mental health support less stressful — and a good way to help you get the treatment you need.

As you consider your options, keep in mind that seasonal affective disorder generally does not last forever. Though the effects of SAD might feel a little more difficult to bear this year, remember that the days will soon start to lengthen and we’ll all get a little more opportunity to spend time in the sun. Until then, take care of yourself, stay connected to the people you love and try to bring as much light into your day-to-day life as possible.

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About Nicole Dieker

Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelance writer since 2012, with a focus on personal finance and habit formation. In addition to Haven Life, her work regularly appears at Lifehacker, Bankrate, CreditCards.com, and Vox. Dieker spent five years as a writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money, and is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales.

Read more by Nicole Dieker

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Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our content is created for educational purposes only. Haven Life does not endorse the companies, products, services or strategies discussed here, but we hope they can make your life a little less hard if they are a fit for your situation.

Haven Life is not authorized to give tax, legal or investment advice. This material is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or investment advice. Individuals are encouraged to seed advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

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