I don’t want to speak for every depressed and anxious individual out there, but the COVID-19 pandemic has not been exactly awesome for my own anxiety and depression. Beginning in March, when the world shut down, I stopped sleeping well. Then I started getting really anxious about losing my job or losing a loved one. Then, here in Oregon, there were wildfires and protests. I had a difficult time doing the things I usually enjoy, and well… I got moody. And I kept holding on hope that things would get better, but then, like everything in 2020, they just kept getting worse.
Now it’s December, and it feels like my COVID-19 depression and anxiety is meeting my seasonal affective disorder. While I have no doubt that the two are going to be best friends, I have no idea what their newfound connection is going to do to my overall mental health. One thing is for sure — it’s not going to be good.
As it turns out, I’m not alone in this struggle. For those of you who are not familiar with seasonal affective disorder, let me tell you this — the acronym is actually SAD. It seems almost too on the nose, but here we are. Yale Medicine describes SAD this way: “Sometimes called the winter blues, SAD is a form of recurrent depression that typically starts in late fall or early winter and resolves in the spring or summer. Symptoms include poor mood, low energy, excessive sleepiness during the day, craving carbohydrates, overeating and gaining weight, and social withdrawal.”
And I know, a whole bunch of you reading this list of SAD symptoms just said, “What?! I’ve been dealing with those exact same symptoms because of the pandemic.” And that is exactly my point. For those of us with SAD, it’s like we are getting a supersized depression combo meal, and that’s scary.
Paul Desan, MD, PhD, director of the Psychiatric Consultation Service at Yale New Haven Hospital, had this to say about the situation: “I’m quite worried about how this winter will be for people who experience SAD. Most are already nervous about COVID-19. They will be indoors, and they won’t be exposed to the same amount of bright light.” Some people choose light therapy via a “light box,” which, according to Dr. Michael Miller at Harvard Health, is at least as effective as antidepressant medications for treating seasonal affective disorder.”
“People feel a loss of control right now,” says Corina Fisher, a behavioral health counselor at Prevea Health. “I think a way to regain that sense of control is by looking at what we do have control over.” And I’m with you – it’s like, “what exactly do I have control over right now?” To be honest, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so out of control in my whole life. But according to Fisher, we need to look at the little things if we are going to overcome this pandemic and SAD crap sandwich.
“The best way to start, is to start small and look at it differently,” says Fisher. “It’s deciding that even though I may not feel like it, I’m still going to get outside and go for a brief walk. Even though my eating habits have not been the best when I’ve been stuck at home, I can take up a new hobby like cooking different types of food.”
Take it from someone who knows — when you are depressed and anxious, controlling what you eat or when you get out of bed or even going for a walk around the neighborhood can be really difficult. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt such a lack of energy and motivation as I do right now, and I’m looking down the barrel of three more months of winter. But somehow I’m going to have to find the will to do it, and one of the best ways to do that is by finding a good therapist and establishing healthy habits now, before SAD takes hold and things get worse.
Dr. Desan advises, “The first step to dealing with a mental health problem is simply identifying it. This really is a scary year. You are going to feel this generalized dread. We need more ways of dealing with stress like this, and not activities like drinking more or people isolating themselves. Many people are finding it helpful to explore healthy ways to help sustain themselves, including exercise, yoga, and spiritual pursuits. And it always helps to stay connected to friends and family, too.”
I’ve been meeting with my therapist once a month online. Most therapists are doing the same, and it’s been a game changer for me. I’ve also been forcing myself to walk around the block twice a day, and I’ve been using the Headspace app to practice mindfulness a couple times a week.
No, it hasn’t made my depression and anxiety go away. I don’t think anything will completely cure it. But combining these healthy habits with my medication has made my life more manageable. And right now, while living through a pandemic with seasonal affective disorder, a manageable life is the best I can ask for.