When I saw a headline this morning warning of a “double whammy of pandemic blues and seasonal depression” my first thought was that it was more of a perfect storm.
We are now in our ninth month of COVID-19 and hopeful that while we hit a daily record of 100,000 daily cases, we might be able to avoid a simultaneous flu season. The past week (or months or year) of election madness has certainly affected Americans. And the triple threat is the annual arrival of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
That term – “perfect storm” – has evolved in its usage from a literal meteorological storm to other disaster scenarios. It came into wide usage with The Perfect Storm 2000 film that was based on the 1997 non-fiction book of the same name by Sebastian Junger. The film tells the story of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing vessel that was lost at sea with all hands after being caught in a storm at sea. Though there are earlier references to storms that came from an unusual confluence of conditions for storm creation, the popular usage of the term “perfect storm” was coined by Junger. He had a conversation with NWS Boston Deputy Meteorologist Robert Case in which Case described the convergence of weather conditions as being “perfect” for the formation of such a storm at Halloween 1991.
I’ve seen a good number of articles about coping with pandemic depression. I’ve seen advice on dealing with the election news – mostly saying turn off your screens. I have posted in past years about SAD which I know I have suffered from in my adult life, even before there was a name for it.
What might have been called “winter blues” at one time happens when temperatures drop and the hours of sunlight shorten and (depending on where you live) we spend less time outdoors and more time inside. It is estimated that more than 66 million Americans display symptoms of mild or severe depression that might be associated with SAD during the fall and winter months.
This rise of depression that happens every fall is expected to be greater in 2020. One psychologist, Dr. Martin Klein, says that studies have shown that around 80 percent of all Americans are dealing with some form of depression or stress since the pandemic began. That triples the country’s depression rate.
I have been sitting outside for a half-hour each morning with my coffee no matter what the weather has been because I know that SAD occurs mostly in the fall and winter with the literal decrease in sunlight. Sunlight helps to maintain human circadian rhythms and sleeping-waking cycles, as well as other biological functions of the human body. Less sun exposure disrupts those rhythms.
There are also chemical changes, such as a decrease in hormones like serotonin and melatonin, and vitamin D. All of those are associated with mood, anxiety levels, and sleep patterns.
You can also negatively affect mood and raise your blood sugar levels in the colder months if it means you get less exercise, drink more alcohol, and eat more sugary and carbohydrate-rich junk and comfort foods. A lot of us may have fallen into that pattern well before the seasons changed due to the pandemic. Some people have been calling this “Pandemic Affective Disorder.”
As we have been warned about the possibility of flu and COVID-19 occurring simultaneously and having some of the same symptoms, the symptoms of SAD are similar to other forms of depression. This is what is usually listed as symptoms of SAD: irritability, lowered mood and energy, increased anxiety, fatigue, a lack of libido, and difficulty paying attention.
SAD can be more severe and it is classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a subset of major depression, officially known as “major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern.”
Some differences in SAD symptoms as compared to chronic major depression include SAD tending to cause people to overeat and sleep longer and later. Major depression usually causes weight loss and erratic sleep schedules.
It is only somewhat optimistic to say that at least the effects of SAD tend to go away once the seasons change because that is at least five months away and we still don’t know when the pandemic will dramatically subside or end.
Here in the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere, November through February are the toughest months. So what can we do to combat SAD?
The suggestions given in the past still hold. Eating healthy and regular exercise (even if that is only neighborhood walks, runs, and bike rides) and increased daily exposure to sunlight.
The sunlight can be my half-hour outside in the morning (try to expose as much skin as possible – which is harder to do as the weather gets colder), sitting inside by a sunny window (sunlight through glass is not as effective) and even special lightboxes with bulbs designed to mimic sunlight.
In all cases of depression, the advice is to interact with people and stay engaged. Unfortunately, depression often makes you want to do the opposite, and the pandemic restrictions have also limited your options. A perfect storm.
Monitor your physical and mental health and don’t be afraid to seek professional help if either seems to be negatively changed.