Pandemic woes colliding with shorter days and colder climes are expected to make this year’s winter blues even bluer.
Many people already struggling with heightened stress and isolation caused by coronavirus are now getting hit with the double-whammy of seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that typically sets in during the winter months.
“It’s like two ocean waves coming toward each other and making a double wave as they converge,” Dr. Norman Rosenthal, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School, told the Daily News.
Rosenthal wrote what many consider the definitive book on the subject, “Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder.”
“People need to be mindful that this is an unusually trying year — especially those with a biological vulnerability to this condition. We’re worried about getting sick, worried about loved ones, worried about businesses going under. There’s a sense of collective sorrow,” he said.
In a regular year, about 6% of American adults experience SAD in its full-blown form, according to Rosenthal. Another 14% suffers from a lesser form of seasonal mood changes, known as winter blues.
Residents of more northern climates tend to bear the brunt, meaning the father you are from the equator, the higher the incidence of SAD.
“SAD prevalence increases with latitude,” Dr. Kelly Rohan, director of clinical training at the University of Vermont’s Department of Psychological Science, told The News.
In Southern states like Florida, only about 1% of the population reports symptoms, whereas in Northern states like New Hampshire, about 9% to 10% of residents are affected, she said.
So what can people do? Especially with the typical fun winter diversions of holiday parties, restaurant dining, group fitness activities and travel increasingly considered high risk?
One option is the type of specialized light therapy recommended by the Brooklyn-based nonprofit Center for Environmental Therapeutics.
Pioneered by Dr. Michael Terman, head of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, the therapy uses bright lighting to manage brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep.
Users can try it at home with a special table-top light box that emits the same 10,000 lux as ambient daylight, Terman, the president of CET, said. They sit close to the box for a prescribed duration, usually around breakfast time to get the best results.
“Indoor lighting throughout the day never matches the levels outdoors from sun and skylight — rather, it falls into the twilight range, essentially producing nighttime conditions 24/7, which can make a winter depression even worse,” Terman told The News.
“Daily use (of a light box) for as little as 30 minutes can lift the depression,” he said, adding that a separate dawn and dusk simulator light could be added to achieve an optimum circadian rhythm.
And the experts agreed it’s more important than ever this year to find and engage in activities that generate joy.
“It’s self-education that’s often the most useful,” Rosenthal said, recommending online music or language lessons and a return to the social Zoom calls that maybe waned over the summer.
“People need to get creative about how they have fun right now. Finding a hobby that can be done while isolating and doing it every day is essential,” Rohan said.
And for much of the last decade, Rohan has been studying the use of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help people escape the “catastrophic thinking” that can make SAD worse.
We can’t control natural day lengths, weather or the existence of the pandemic, but we can control how we cope, she said, explaining the approach of her therapy boot camps.
“If someone presented with general thoughts such as, ‘The pandemic is the worst thing ever! I cannot stand this!’ I would take one thought at a time and ask, ‘What’s the evidence for that?’” she said.
“Yes, COVID-19 is difficult, challenging, brings uncertainty. But is it truly the worst thing ever? What would be worse? We have some historical examples: the Great Depression lasted 10 years. World War II lasted six years,” she said.
“I would take a careful look at the personal implications of the pandemic for the individual’s life and validate any losses. I would challenge the person to consider any positive consequences of COVID restrictions — for example, spending more time with immediate family in the household, appreciating life’s small moments more, work at home, feeling more compassion towards others,” she said.
For many people, antidepressant medication can help treat SAD. Anyone using such prescriptions should consult their physicians before adding light therapy on their own at home, Terman said.
“There are a couple bad months still ahead of us. But this is the time to hang together and be kind to one another. Things are going to get better,” Rosenthal said.