Could Quarantine Make Winter Blues Worse?
It's getting darker and colder, plus we're all cooped up inside. Here's what that means for mental health.by Sarah Ellis Health Writer
The air is getting colder, and you’ve pulled your sweaters out of storage. Fall has officially arrived, which means shorter days and longer, darker nights. Unfortunately, the shortened periods of light can be depressing for many people – not to mention, we’re living through unprecedented times this year, with a pandemic that has turned all our lives upside down.
If you suffer from seasonal affective disorder (aka SAD), you might be looking at your calendar with an underlying feeling of dread. The months between November and March can be the toughest times for people with seasonal depression. “Some people call it the ‘winter blues,’” says Ani Kalayjian, Ed.D., adjunct professor of psychology at Teacher’s College, Columbia University in New York, NY and president of the Association for Trauma Outreach and Prevention at Meaningfulworld. “Some characteristic symptoms are sadness, dejection, and loss of hope. Usually these symptoms start developing when days get shorter, darker, and colder.”
To make things even more challenging, most of us are still observing social distancing regulations to minimize the spread of COVID-19. (And if you’re not, you should be!) You can’t exactly break up your day with social outings or workouts at the barre studio, especially if your whole family is living at home with you 24/7. These multitude of stressors are now compounded by the approach of winter.
Changing Seasons, Changing Mood
This year has felt undeniably strange, the months between March and September soldiering on without the hallmarks of a typical spring and summer. While the cool weather is certainly a relief in some ways – no more excessive sweating – it can also be the start of an emotionally difficult time.
Recognizing The Signs Of Seasonal Affective Disorder
The National Institute of Mental Health characterizes the following symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. (It’s important to note that in order to meet the qualifications for SAD, these symptoms would need to occur on a seasonal basis.)
Feeling sad most of the day
Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
Feeling hopeless or worthless
Marked change in appetite and/or weight
Thoughts of death or self-harm
“Seasonal affective disorder has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain as a result of less sunlight in the winter,” Kalayjian says. While studies haven’t definitively figured out the cause of SAD, it’s known to be related to melatonin production in the body – a hormone that’s sensitive to light exposure. “Symptoms associated with melatonin deficiency include fatigue, desire to sleep longer, lethargic feeling, and irritability,” she notes. People with SAD also tend to have difficulty with serotonin regulation, especially during times of year with less natural sunlight.
Unfortunately, physical isolation can also contribute to loneliness and sadness. “People have been also locking themselves in their apartments and their houses” during the pandemic, Kalayjian says, which prevents them from getting the sunlight they might get with more time outdoors. “When you isolate yourself, you are going to feel the signs of SAD because you’re not getting sun inside your apartment.”
Keep Up Your Pandemic Precautions
Some days, it’s all too tempting to bust out of your home office and start living your old life again. But with COVID-19 still on the rise in much of the country, now is not the time to lose your resolve. “There is tremendous COVID-19 social distancing and mask wearing ‘fatigue,’” says Rashid Chotani, M.D., Medical Director and senior scientist at IEM in Morrisville, NC. “With the holiday season coming around, we all want to be together with friends and family … [but] we know that historically, respiratory viruses spread more efficiently during fall and winter.” During the winter, more people tend to crowd in indoor spaces, making viral transmission more likely.
Dr. Chotani notes that barring the approval of a COVID vaccine (which may be months away), the pandemic is unlikely to die down anytime soon. “We cannot give up and let our guard down,” he says. What you can do is get your flu shot, which can help decrease the burden on the healthcare system and keep the flu season mild, so healthcare workers can continue to combat COVID-19. “There is light at the end of the tunnel,” he assures, “but we have to be vigilant in the meanwhile by observing common sense measures.”
We get it – these next few months will be hard on all of us. But thankfully, everyone is experiencing this chaotic time together (even if not physically so). “You can still physically distance without isolating yourself,” Kalayjian says. On days when you feel like you can’t handle quarantine anymore, try these ideas to get more sunlight and social interaction in your life.
Talk with a professional. Of course, anytime you need mental health support, it’s always a great idea to connect with a pro. “Talking with a therapist, psychologist, or counselor helps tremendously,” Kalayjian says. They can help you determine whether you’re dealing with depression or SAD, and whether you’re a candidate for clinical approaches like antidepressants.
Try to resist sugar and excess caffeine. “When the days are dark, we tend to lean on sweets and caffeine, which forces us into an emotional roller coaster,” she notes, especially if you already struggle with blood sugar regulation. Instead, try eating a whole foods-based diet full of dark vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Think of this time as a fun way to introduce more seasonal produce (Apples! Sweet potatoes!) into your diet.
Spend at least 30 minutes per day outdoors. This may take a little planning on your part, but Kalayjian assures that can make a huge difference in your mood. “Sun is vital,” she says. According to a study in Issues in Mental Health Nursing, most Americans are deficient in vitamin D, which can be remedied by spending more time outdoors—just don’t forget your sunblock.
Plan at least one social interaction per week. Be diligent about this! “We have to be creative to have at least one social engagement a week,” Kalayjian says. This will give you something to look forward to amidst the monotony of life at home. Social distancing does not have to mean social isolation, and your friends can be your number one support system during this time. Who’s in for a virtual Netflix-watching party?
Plan some vacation time this winter. Who says summer vacations are the only way to do things? “If you notice that you’re having some symptoms of SAD, it’s best to rearrange and take your vacations from November to March,” Kalayjian says. “That would help you get a little break from the three- or four-month long period of winter.” Even if it’s a COVID staycation, fill it with things that bring you joy, like hiking, baking, and reading books you haven’t had time for until now. These little distractions can help make this winter more manageable.
Unfortunately, seasonal affective disorder might be worse this year for many people in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The extended time spent indoors, away from natural sunlight and regular social interaction, can contribute to feelings of loneliness and depression. Prioritizing your mental and physical health will be key to making it through this season. Get your flu shot, keep planning those Zoom happy hours, and bundle up and take a brisk walk whenever you can.
- Seasonal Affective Disorder: National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). “Seasonal Affective Disorder.” nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml
- COVID-19 Tracker: Johns Hopkins University of Medicine. (2020). “Coronavirus Resource Center.” coronavirus.jhu.edu/
- Vitamin D Deficiencies: Issues in Mental Health Nursing. (2010). “Vitamin D and Depression: Where is all the Sunshine?” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2908269/