How to fight seasonal affective disorder during a pandemic

Mike Kramer
Ed Betzelberger, a licensed clinical social worker for UnityPoint Health Unity Place, poses for a photo in his East Peoria office Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. Betzelberger says that the pandemic will likely exacerbate the emotional issues associated with the onset of winter and seasonal affective disorder.

Ideally, winter in the United States is a time of holidays, family gatherings, festive food and drink and general merry-making.

But this year is far from ideal. It’s difficult for many to celebrate when seasonal affective disorder (SAD) combines with the COVID-19 pandemic, adding a new layer of concern to an already emotionally challenging season.

Dr. Regina Brian, a clinical psychologist at Psychology Specialists in Pekin, contended that the pandemic and associated safety protocols have magnified the sense of isolation that can come with seasonal affective disorder.

“Physical distancing makes it a lot harder to stay connected to people, which emphasizes the feeling of social withdrawal,” Brian explained. “The pandemic has increased the number of people working from home, which adds to the isolation, because you’re not in the work environment with co-workers and colleagues. I think also that the quarantine, isolation and physical distancing have significantly impacted the ability for people to have things to look forward to, such as vacations and family gatherings, especially now with the holidays approaching.”

Ed Betzelberger, a licensed clinical social worker at UnityPoint Health Unity Place, noted that physical distancing measures can impact the quality of relationships. Feeling trapped indoors can cause a sense of isolation and safety concerns may have upended travel plans and festive gatherings.

“You could be dealing with a lot of disappointment on top of any other issues you might be struggling with,” Betzelberger added.

Christina Gerlach, a crisis services manager at Unity Place, has noticed that the economic consequences of the pandemic have added financial concerns to other emotional problems.

“It’s everything from simply having money available to insurance changes because of job loss,” said Gerlach. “We’ve also seen housing changes where people may have been living on their own and now they have to come home or live with friends and family. The dynamics change with that, or with living by yourself when you’re used to living with someone else.”

While depression is alive and well throughout the year, Brian says that she has tended to see an increase in many depressive symptoms as the days get shorter and colder. One simple but significant contributing factor is a lack of sunshine.

“I always encourage people to get outside and to let some sunshine in, because there is a link (between seasonal affective disorder and) a lower level of Vitamin D, more specifically Vitamin D-3, which is produced through the sun,” she said. “Even though we get gloomy days, it is important to try to boost that level of Vitamin D by letting sunshine in when possible.”

Betzelberger noted that coping mechanisms for seasonal affective disorder during a pandemic vary from one individual to the next. But three key building blocks in the defense against seasonal affective disorder are keeping in contact with friends and loved ones, getting outdoors and exercising when possible, and focusing on hobbies.

“What we teach people how to do is to look at what they do have and what they can do,” he added. “We accept the reality of our circumstances. Whether we like what’s going on or not, we still have to deal with reality on reality’s terms. From there, we look at what our existing choices are. Focus on how to do the best you can with what you have. That varies from person-to-person and lends itself to a very individualized approach, rather than a flat cookie-cutter (program). Needs are going to vary from one person to the next.”

Activity like hobbies are vital because they call an important internal ally into the battle, said Brian.

“Even though it’s hard to feel excited about things during this time, it is important to stay connected to people and to get creative,” she explained. “There’s a creative part of our brain that can really help get through the season.”

Coping strategies that wake up the creative part of someone’s brain can range from a trip to the library to a walk along a new path to taking art classes. Gerlach believes that one of the most important mechanisms of all for seasonal affective disorder is communication with friends and loved ones.

“I promote being able to talk and identify your feelings and situation,” she said. “We absolutely encourage letting people know that things aren’t going right. We try to come up with coping skills that you can do inside, outside, at work, or at home; and we try to help patients develop coping skills regardless of the setting they’re in.”