The months of unrelenting cold and cloudy days can really take their toll on our mental health, and for some, it can even lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.
“You could be feeling depressed and low because the seasons have changed, the days are shorter, it’s colder outside, and that’s still something to be taken seriously,” says Erin M. Moss, a licensed mental health therapist and a board member at Mental Health Advocates of Western New York. She added, “I don’t think people realize how impacted we are by it living here in the northeast and Western New York.”
Laura Steuerman knows that all too well. She grew up in Baltimore and, when she moved to Buffalo five years ago, she immediately noticed a change when winter came around. She says there’d be days where she just wanted to sit in her room and cry.
“I’m just not as inspired. I can’t function on a cloudy day if I don’t get outside,” Steuerman says.
Symptoms of SAD:
- Feeling sluggish/tired
- Feeling sad
- Change in appetite/weight
- Not getting enough sleep or sleeping too much
- Pulling away from social activities
Mental health experts say SAD can happen at any age, and now the pandemic could be exacerbating issues for people, even if they have never had symptoms before.
“There’s an added level of stress and collective tension and isolation that fuel more mental health concerns,” says Erin Brewer-Spritzer, a Clinical Psychology Doctoral Candidate with Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Young Adult Program. She added that as people work from home and sleep in, “Time starts to become this fading construct. That shifting of our circadian rhythm affects our mood.”
Sunlight, in general, plays an important role in our mood, and while working from home, many people are spending less time in it.
“You’re not commuting. As much as we hate to commute, you’re out in the car and there’s light. You might be losing an hour of light during the day because you’re working from home,” says Michele Brooks, executive director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness Buffalo & Erie County.
Mental health professionals recommend opening the curtains and getting outside as often as possible. Eating healthier, sticking to a routine and exercising can also help.
“Try to do something that you’re skilled at, that excites you. It gets you emotionally activated when you’re feeling physically low, and that can reset and reactivate us,” Brewer-Spritzer says.
Steuerman says she has found all that plus staying hydrated and taking a vitamin D supplement help her mitigate her symptoms.
“I know when you’re in the throes of depression, it is hard to even get up off the couch or out of bed but get moving in the morning. You just feel that sense of accomplishment. Even if you have a laundry list of things to do, you’ve checked something off that list and just feel better about yourself,” Steuerman says.
She says she also speaks with a therapist when needed.
“If you have those feelings of depression most days and continuously, that’s a situation where you should seek some professional help,” Brooks says.
“Therapeutic treatment will also provide that area for people to talk things out, to process things, that extra layer that would support these healthy things they’re doing,” Moss says.
Some doctors may recommend medications or light or phototherapy, which Brooks says should only be done under a health care professional’s supervision. “Light therapy has to be used properly. There is a very specific type of box and way to use it,” she adds.
Tips to Dealing with SAD:
- Set a schedule and stick to it
- Eat healthy
- Take a vitamin D supplement
- Set an easy to achieve goal doing something you enjoy
- Meaningfully connect with your support network
- Talk therapy
- Light therapy/phototherapy
The most important message: There is hope. “This is hard, and it is valid. And SAD is real. There are ways to treat it. We don’t have to live in this way. We don’t have to just accept it,” says Brewer-Spritzer.
There are several options for support groups throughout the area for adults, children and families.