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Coping with SAD and COVID-19

December 16, 2020 | Mental Health

A middle aged woman sitting in front of a blue light to treat seasonal affective disorder

As colder weather, soaring COVID-19 cases and disrupted holidays force people indoors this winter, more Americans may struggle with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — a type of depression that kicks in when days grow shorter and temperatures fall.

“Biologically and chemically, people have a reaction to weather changes and darkness, and it’s a time when we have more isolation,” says Cara McNulty, DPA, President of Behavioral Health and EAP at Aetna. “The physical distancing and closures as a result of the pandemic make seasonal affective disorder, especially this year, something really important to pay attention to.”

SAD affects six in every 100 people on average. The causes are unclear, but women are four times more likely to feel its effects. “Women have higher rates of anxiety and depression, which puts them more at risk,” says McNulty.

Adolescents and young adults can suffer from SAD, too. “We’re pretty good at acknowledging grief and loss when a loved one passes, but we don't often acknowledge grief and loss around things like there wasn't college graduation, or you're starting high school online and you're not meeting friends,” McNulty says.

Photo of Cara McNulty, President of Behavioral Health, Aetna
“Biologically and chemically, people have a reaction to weather changes and darkness,” says Cara McNulty, President of Behavioral Health, Aetna

That’s why CVS Health launched Here 4 U, a program that offers virtual peer support sessions for young adults from 18-24 to help them manage their mental health amid the current challenges. A wider rollout is planned in 2021.

It’s important to recognize the symptoms of SAD, which is usually experienced as mild to moderate depression, McNulty says. “You feel blue; you have less energy. Some people say, ‘I just feel foggy; my thoughts aren't clear.’”

Measures to treat or prevent SAD include exercising, getting enough rest and eating healthy foods. Getting outside in sunlight or using an indoor light box that provides 10,000 lux of light can also help. A vitamin D supplement can also be beneficial, especially for women.

In her own life, McNulty finds prioritizing gratitude improves her mindset.

“Taking time for things like thanking other people or volunteering absolutely has a positive effect on our own mental well-being,” she says. “Kindness is an unbelievable elixir.”

Help is also available; therapists are well-versed in seasonal affective disorder.

“Things have been tough already this year and our resiliency levels are low,” McNulty says. “It's important that we stop and say, ‘I'm not going to just try to muscle through this. I'm going to seek care’ — and to understand that care is there.”