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How to Cope with the Winter Blues and COVID-19

Research offers some effective treatments for this double whammy.

Maridav/Adobe Stock
Source: Maridav/Adobe Stock

In the northern hemisphere, darkness now falls before dinnertime. Most northern latitudes have less than ten hours of daylight in November – meaning most people spend the majority of their daylight hours at work.

Evidence clearly establishes that darkness impacts the moods and mental health of millions of people. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a well-founded medical condition that affects about 5 percent of Americans; and another 15 percent experience a milder form of SAD, often referred to as the “winter blues.”

People with SAD experience the symptoms of clinical depression, but only in the colder, darker months. These include unexplained fatigue, sadness, loss of interest in activities, and cravings for carbohydrates and sweet foods, which often lead to weight gain.

This year, the social restrictions put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic will likely amplify the symptoms of SAD. Researchers have already established that the pandemic has led more people to feel anxious, depressed, and stressed. As winter approaches and the weather turns colder, socializing outside, the safest place to interact during the pandemic, will become more difficult. This will create a double whammy for people with SAD.

While this may sound dire, there are treatments that can help.

A large systematic review published this year finds that light therapy can help alleviate seasonal depression. Light therapy involves sitting next to a bright light that mimics the sun’s natural light. The review found that for individuals with seasonal depression, exposure to bright light treatment early in the morning can be as effective as antidepressant therapy. There is also some evidence that taking a walk outside in the morning can reduce the symptoms of SAD, possibly even more than using an artificial light.

Exercise is also an important component of boosting mental health. Evidence demonstrates that exercise can alleviate symptoms of depression – in some studies just as much as antidepressant medications. Additional data show that weight-lifting is effective in reducing symptoms of depression. Even when gyms and fitness centers close to slow the spread of COVID-19, it’s possible to walk outside or access exercise videos online.

And talk therapy is a proven treatment: A randomized-controlled study of adults with SAD found that cognitive-behavioral therapy can be more effective than light therapy for the treatment of seasonal depression. Many mental health providers are offering video-chat sessions during the COVID-19 pandemic, making therapy more accessible than before for many people.

There are some alternative treatments that are not backed up by the evidence. Systematic reviews have found no data that show St. John’s Wort or melatonin are effective for seasonal depression.

The take-home message: People who experience seasonal depression may struggle with worsening symptoms this year due to the social restrictions imposed by COVID-19. But there is evidence that some treatments will help, including light therapy, consistent exercise, and talk therapy. As always, if you or someone you know is struggling with depression, work with a doctor to identify a solution that’s the best course of action.

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