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How To Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder During A Pandemic

Exposure to light boxes is one way to counteract Seasonal Affective Disorder and improve your mood during the dark days of winter.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a cyclical depressive disorder that occurs during parts of the year with minimal sunlight. SAD can cause people to feel fatigue, depression, hopelessness and to withdraw from their social life.

Short, cold winter days and a pandemic that keeps many people inside their home all day only compounds the affect that SAD has on people.

Janis Eells is a professor at UW-Milwaukee’s College of Health Sciences and someone who personally struggles with SAD. She explains that the disorder was discovered in the 1980's by Norman Rosenthal, a South African doctor who came to New York City and began to realize a change in how he felt.

“It took quite a while to convince people that the length of day, the amount of sunlight you got, the amount of light you were exposed to actually had anything to do with mood,” says Eells. 

Eventually the medical community started to accept that the amount and kind of light the body takes in has a real effect. As studies were conducted, results showed that regions further from the equator with less light in the winter saw higher rates of SAD.

“Three percent of Americans are affected with SAD. In Wisconsin we’re looking at about six percent, in New Hampshire it’s about almost 10 percent, in Florida it’s 1.4 percent, so it clearly has a lot to do with the length of day with where you are in the hemisphere,” Eells explains. 

She also adds that women are more often diagnosed with SAD than men. "But if we dig in and ask the appropriate questions the incidence does not have a sex difference," notes Eells. "It's just that women are more likely to admit that they have something that's affecting their mood than men are."

The amount of light is not the only factor — the kind of light also plays a role.

The body is used to seeing bluer light in the morning and redder light as the sun sets according to Eells. The problem is TV, computer, and phone screens emit blue light — so using those devices for extended periods of time, especially near bedtime, can interrupt sleep patterns and worsen SAD symptoms.

Because of the pandemic, everyone has been using screens more and Eells says that is only hurting people with SAD.

“It’s a double, triple whammy. It’s basically COVID fatigue, which is depressing in and of itself, diminished holidays, the lack of social interactions, all of those, you know, combine or conspire towards depression,” she says.

Try adding the following steps to your daily routine to help minimize the depressive effects of SAD and improve your mood:

  • 30 minutes to an hour spent outside, even on cloudy days
  • Light therapy — get a light box that emits 10,000 lux (a measurement of light)
  • Stocking up on vitamin D
  • Any form of exercise
  • Avoiding screens in the last hour before bed
  • Setting a regular sleep and wake pattern
  • Be kind to yourself

For people who are really struggling with the depression that SAD brings, Eells recommends reaching out to a psychiatrist who specializes in Seasonal Affective Disorder. 

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.