Community Psychiatry’s Julian Lagoy, M.D., and Leela Magavi, M.D. were featured in Verywell Mind discussing Seasonal Affective Disorder during a pandemic.  

COVID-19 and Seasonal Affective Disorder: How This Year Is Different

By: Sara Lindberg, M.Ed | October 16, 2020

If you have the blue right now, don’t worry—you’re not alone. Each year, about 5 percent of adults in the United States experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD). For many, this is a reoccurring condition that visits from the late fall to spring, with the most difficult months being January and February.

But, as we get closer to winter, many people wonder if this will be the year we see symptoms worsen as we deal with the combination of COVID-19, the flu season, and darker, shorter days.

As the weather grows colder and sunlight hours dwindle, it’s important to take extra care of your mental health to keep SAD at bay.

Leela R. Magavi, MD, an adolescent and child psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry, says many clinicians do not ask about how seasons affect mood as there are so many other things to cover during the session, and some individuals minimize their symptoms as they experience guilt and shame or feel weak conveying that the weather affects their mood.

“This year, individuals may experience SAD symptoms for the first time, or they may experience severe SAD symptoms, which affect their ability to take care of themselves and the people they love,” Magavi says.

Many of us are already experiencing depressive and anxiety symptoms due to limited social interaction, lack of routine, job loss, the political climate, and various other psychosocial stressors. Magavi says the seasonal changes only exacerbate demotivation, apathy, fatigue, and irritability. Individuals who have suffered from SAD have tearfully shared with me that this is the worst their symptoms of SAD have ever been. Even medications, phototherapy, and vitamin D supplementation have not been sufficient in targeting some individuals’ SAD symptoms this year.

Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry, shares the same concerns as Swift and Magavi and points out that the combination of COVID, the winter season, and seasonal affective disorder has never happened before in human history, and things will be much harder for people with SAD this year. “They will be at higher risk for depression since the pandemic is making everything more stressful, lonely, and depressing for everyone already,” he says.

He also expresses concern about new cases since everyone is more isolated and lonely, and the majority of people spend less time outside in natural sunlight, which increases the risk of developing seasonal affective disorder and depression.

SAD in Children

Adults are not the only population impacted by SAD. Children and teens also face seasonal depression during the winter months. The difference, says Magavi, is that SAD presents differently in children and may manifest as irritability. “Children may not directly convey that they are sad, but may exhibit significant fussiness, clinginess or emotional reactivity,” she says.

They may also present with a constricted affect and respond to exciting news with apathy. And some kids will struggle with sustaining attention and retaining information, which Magavi says can lead to them repeating themselves or asking the same question repeatedly.

During the fall and winter months, Magavi says many parents express frustration with the morning routine since children with SAD often struggle with daytime sleepiness. Children of all ages may express disinterest in playing with their favorite toys or with their closest friends.

Engage in Social Activities

Lagoy says anyone experiencing SAD should keep in close contact with their friends and loved ones as loneliness and isolation make the effects of SAD worse.

Maximize Light In Your House

Lagoy recommends opening all of the blinds in your house so that the house has more natural light in the fall and the winter months.

Light Therapy

Because SAD is linked to the shorter days and decreased sunlight in the fall and winter months, light therapy can be used to help replace the lack of sunshine during those months. Light therapy or phototherapy, as it is often called, involves daily exposure to artificial sunlight.

“Phototherapy may normalize your circadian rhythms by stimulating retinal cells, which connect to the hypothalamus,” says Magavi. Seasonal changes and diminished exposure to sunlight may disrupt melatonin and serotonin levels, and fluctuations in serotonin and melatonin levels can adversely affect your sleep, mood, and overall functionality.

Magavi recommends sitting by a light box for 30 minutes or as long as possible in the morning. Light boxes usually provide 10,000 lux (lux is a light intensity measurement). Magavi says it’s important to point out that light boxes are not FDA approved, and they do not necessitate a prescription.

Click here to read the entire article on Verywell Mind.

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