Pandemic may add to misery of seasonal affective disorder, but strategies can help

A person walks in the distance in a park with snow on the ground.
A pedestrian walks along a snowy path Oct. 20 in Upper Landing Park in St. Paul.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

Around the same time every year, Chelsea Ihle feels the same heavy weight in her chest.

“It’s not like it’s all of a sudden it’s there and you feel it,” the Minneapolis resident said. “I think it’s something that slowly creeps up on you over time.”

Sherri Holmen of Plymouth, Minn., has struggled every fall and winter for 15 years.

“I overeat, oversleep, I stop visiting friends, I find it hard to get to work in the morning,” she said. “My concentration at work is much poorer.”

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Holmen and Ihle experience seasonal affective disorder, with the appropriate acronym SAD. And there are concerns the isolation and anxiety caused by the pandemic may intensify symptoms for many people.

Craig Sawchuk from the Mayo Clinic, who researches seasonal affective disorder — also known as seasonal depression — described SAD as feeling “blah.”

“When people start to talk about their mood they may not always report their mood is sad, like how we stereotypically think about depression — but more apathetic, more flat,” he said.

It's an annual battle for Madisyn Gowans of Minneapolis, too. She wonders what will happen as the pandemic continues.

“People get sick left and right during the winter and we just brush it off as a cold — but now more than ever people are really taking it seriously and getting scared. So people are going to isolate more and they are going to be alone more,” she said.

That's a concern for Sawchuk. We've all had routines disrupted during the pandemic, and the researcher said those disruptions could make this winter more difficult for people with SAD.

“We look at unhealthy habits that haven't necessarily developed because suddenly it’s like, ‘I want to start drinking more and sleeping more.’ It’s just the way the environment and social rhythms have changed,” Sawchuk said.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey from June showed about 30 percent of respondents feeling anxious or depressed due to the pandemic. That’s about three times more than the same time last year.

But the experts — and Minnesotans who live with SAD — say there are ways to prepare. Like creating and following a schedule that designates a time for sleep, meals, exercise and self-care. Ihle said that provides her a welcome sense of familiarity.

“What are the small things that you can make really predictable, that you know can have an incremental impact on just honestly making you feel better?” she said.

Holmen said she monitors the early symptoms to get a jump start before her energy drops.

“I would really encourage people to line up resources now that can be put in place, so when your tank is already low, it doesn’t just completely drop when we get to those months,” she said.

Those resources may include a network of friends and family, and perhaps a professional.

“If a person starts feeling melancholy, starts feeling extra blue, starts feeling like they’re not interested in their usual hobbies. (If) they’re not eating or drinking too much — those are all signs that they needed to reach out to a counselor or mental health professional,” said Irene Greene, a Minneapolis therapist and mental health educator.

Greene teaches her patients to use the image of a donut to manage anxiety and depression.

A hand drawn larger circle surrounds a smaller circle
Irene Greene uses "The Discernment Donut" visual to help her clients identify areas of influence within their life.
Courtesy of Irene Greene

“The inner circle are the things I can do and I can influence, and the outer circle is what I cannot control or influence,” said Greene.

The therapist said taking up activities such as growing indoor plants, reading, writing letters and painting can give a person something to look forward to each day. And she said it helps to remind ourselves what we're thankful for.

“Gratitude helps us feel more empowered — a sense of, ‘What do I have and feel good about and am grateful for?’ — helps us feel more empowered and off-balances the sense of powerlessness that COVID has collectively provided our world,” she said.

Sawchuk from the Mayo Clinic recommends light therapy as an inexpensive and effective form of treatment. He says even just going for a daily walk, opening blinds or turning on lights can be a mood booster.

Experts also recommend physical activity. Gowans said one of her go-to coping mechanisms lately is yoga.

Holmen said she counts the hours of sunlight as a reminder that seasonal depression is just that — seasonal.

“I feel much better substituting my cellphone scrolling with knitting,” Ihle said. “Colors, patterns and tactile feel of textures is something a little bit more soothing to focus on while doing activities like watching TV.”

Ihle said there are simple steps we all can do to help each other in the months ahead.

“Because so many more people are going to potentially go through that for the first time this winter,” she said, “just to be a little bit more patient, to be a little bit more kind, to be a little bit more understanding — that’s really the most that we can do for each other.”