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Preparing for Seasonal Affective Disorder in a COVID-19 World

Last winter was a season like no other for me and little did I know what was lurking around the corner. I struggle every winter with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and last winter was particularly bad. Not because we had an inordinate amount of snow and blustery days in the Northeast which lead us to being trapped inside (that came later and had nothing to do with the weather), in fact, it was one of the mildest winters I can remember. Which made it even harder for my family and friends to understand. “We’ve hardly had any snow,” and, “Get outside and enjoy this unseasonably warm February day while we have it” were phrases that my “I hate winter” glumness were met with regularly. Those phrases and the mild winter didn’t make my SAD feel any less, sad.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a depression brought on by the change of seasons, most notably during the dark, winter months where lack of light and Vitamin D can wreak havoc on the psyche of a person who loves warm sunny days. The amount of snowfall doesn’t always correlate with the amount of sadness or blahs the season brings. And for some reason, last winter was particularly rough for me. Needless to say with winter approaching, a global wide pandemic and the divisiveness of our country with the upcoming election, I am feeling deeply envious of the bears who are preparing their den for that long winter’s nap and wondering if they would scooch over and make room for me. Sleeping through SAD sounds so much easier than facing it.

I have found over the years that when dealing with seasonal affective disorder, there are methods that make me feel better and behaviors that I need to avoid that will undoubtedly make me feel worse. Isolating with a television remote is what I prefer and what feels best in the moment, but, I know that this coping method only allows me to sink further regardless of how much I laugh watching non-stop episodes of Schitt’s Creek.

One thing that helps is spending time with friends even when I don’t want to get out of my yoga pants. My self-talk of “get up,” “go out,” “be with friends,” almost has me out of my yoga pants and into my jeans, then I remember going out and socializing with friends during a pandemic might make this coping method a little tricky this year. “Oh perfect”, my newly winterized bear cave (i.e., my bed) calls out to me, “You will be fine tucked away in here.” Sure, it’s so easy on a cold dreary day in January to jump back into bed and let the weight of my winter time down comforter provide me with the comfort I need, but I know this is not what my SAD brain needs. It needs to get out of bed, get showered and dress like I have to go somewhere even if it means to my office two rooms away.

I know that this winter will make connecting with friends more challenging. Social distancing makes it hard to grab a bottle of wine and head to a girlfriend’s house to binge the latest episode of The Crown, but, with technology at our fingertips, we can still grab that bottle of wine, FaceTime or Zoom a friend and chat about what we would do if we were Queen. The pandemic makes it difficult for obvious reason like being in close proximity with others, but how people are reacting to it makes it difficult as well. Try and interact with those friends who feel similarly to you in regards to the pandemic. Some people are really taking the precautions to heart while others are more willing to take risks, risks that might make you uncomfortable. The added stress of mask vs no mask mentality and/or “the virus is just like the flu” doesn’t needed to be added to your seasonal affective disorder plate.

Exercise is also essential for me and for someone who hates the cold, my days of kayaking and walking outside will be met with that bear cave of mine beckoning me back to its dark winter slumber. And although I continue to pay a monthly fee to my local gym, I have yet felt comfortable enough to walk back in due to the pandemic (at least that’s the excuse I am using to avoid the elliptical machine). I know this winter will challenge me more than ever to make sure that exercise stays part of my SAD protocol, but those endorphins that are released after a brisk walk keep my body from wanting to crawl back into that bed and keep me upright and moving.

As an autism blogger, I spend a lot of time on social media as it is a “part of the job.” Posting regularly ensures that my posts don’t end up lost in cyber space known as the bottom of your newsfeed. During these moments of less socializing and more isolation, it makes sense we would gravitate to “connecting” with others by opening those social media apps regularly. In these times of such unrest in our country, we can be inundated by negative social media posts causing depression and anxiety to skyrocket. It’s so important to take breaks from social media. Nothing can tank you faster than the ugliness that often goes hand in hand with social media.

As I mentioned earlier, last winter was the worst my SAD has ever been, so along with therapy and medication, I also tried light therapy box treatment. Well, I did, but I didn’t. My therapist let me borrow her ultra-violent light which is believed to help reduce some of the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. According to Mayo Clinic, “A light therapy box mimics outdoor light. Researchers believe this type of light causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood and eases other symptoms of SAD.” The plan was I would sit in front of the light while I ate my breakfast and catch up on my most recent People Magazine. I mean, how can anyone be SAD while looking at George Clooney, eating some granola and feeling artificial, yet presumably effective, UV rays on your face. Unfortunately, last year I think I waited too long for the UV therapy.

You know how when you have an injury that requires pain medication and the doctor suggests you stay ahead of the pain by taking the medication before the pain sets in since it’s hard to “catch up?” Well, I think I started light box therapy a little late as I was feeling too SAD to make much of an effort with the light. This year, I plan to  start using the light therapy box before my energy and motivation to be healthy blows away with the autumn leaves so I can combine some real legit warm UV rays from the sun with my light box therapy rays and alone time with George Clooney.

Much like the light therapy box, this winter, I am going to need to embark upon these methods before the dark days of winter drag me back to my makeshift bear cave. For me, starting early is best. As I watch the leaves continuously fall on our recently closed swimming pool blanketing the cover in a mocking reminder of what was and ever so subtly warning me of what is to come, I feel a sense of relief that this season, although I may feel SAD as I long for the color, warmth and beauty of spring that I have plenty of experience, tools and methods to keep me from finding a bear to cuddle up with this winter for my long winter’s nap.

As with any type of depression, please seek professional help if you are feeling overwhelming sadness this winter season (or any time).

Image courtesy of Getty Images