Do You Have Seasonal Affective Disorder? [Learn the Signs and Treatment Options During the Pandemic]

The surge in coronavirus combined with the onset of shorter days and cold weather means many of us are spending more time indoors. For anyone who suffers from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), less sunlight, a decrease in outdoor time, and ongoing pandemic stress can make depression worse. 

What are the signs of seasonal affective disorder and how can it be treated during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder is clinical depression that follows a regular seasonal pattern. It commonly occurs in the fall and winter months with full improvement in the spring and summer. 

“If a patient has depression risk factors or mentions depression symptoms, I have an easy survey tool that can be completed online or in-person to help identify SAD or major depression,” says Dr. Jenna Mendelson, a clinical psychologist with LeBauer HealthCare Oak Ridge and Summerfield. “If we do identify SAD or depression, we can then discuss treatment options and make a plan together.”

SAD has many of the same symptoms as major depression, including:

  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed – This may manifest itself as spending less time engaged in a favorite hobby and becoming more withdrawn socially. 
  • Changes in appetite or weight – Some SAD patients experience carbohydrate cravings or engage in overeating. Others may lose their appetite or have digestive issues due to stress and depression. 
  • Problems with sleep – Oversleeping is often more prominent in people suffering from SAD; however, many people are also reporting trouble falling asleep during the pandemic. Working and learning from home is one factor that may be impacting sleep for many people. 
  • Feeling fatigued – If you’re struggling to get through the workday or find the energy for usual activities, you may be suffering from SAD. 
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless – The feeling of hopelessness may be especially pronounced in the ongoing pandemic. While recent vaccine announcements are hopeful, we know they will not be widely available until the spring. 
  • Having difficulty concentrating – While many people are talking about “COVID brain fog,” the inability to focus can also indicate depression. 

The Sunlight Connection

It’s estimated that 5% of Americans suffer from SAD, and those in northern areas, where there are fewer hours of sunlight, are more likely to be impacted. 

“Less sunlight and shorter daylight hours can kick off a biochemical imbalance in the brain,” explains Dr. David Gutterman, Director of LeBauer Behavioral Medicine. “That imbalance can lead to depression. With the stress of COVID-19 layered on top of a change in seasons, people with SAD or any type of depression are more likely to experience more severe symptoms this winter.”

Treating Seasonal Depression in the Pandemic

There are several options for treating SAD even in the midst of COVID precautions. Most patients benefit from a combination of the following. 

Increasing Natural Sunlight Exposure

Finding ways to increase your sunlight exposure, especially in the morning, can help fight SAD. 

  • Open the blinds and try to eat breakfast beside an east-facing window. 
  • Try for a mid-morning or lunchtime walk outside. If you’re in a park or crowded area of town, remember to wear a mask. 
  • If you can’t walk, bundle up and spend 20 or 30 minutes sitting on a balcony, patio, or in your yard. 

Light Therapy

A light box that releases extremely bright light and filters out damaging ultraviolet rays can be used for light therapy. Patients sit in front of the box, not facing it, typically for 20 minutes or more a day.  

It’s best to have guidance from a provider who can help you determine how much exposure you need and when to use it. 

Online Counseling

Many mental health counselors are offering virtual appointments. You’re able to receive counseling from the convenience and safety of your home on a regular basis. 

“It’s extremely important for a mental health professional to be involved in any treatment plan for seasonal depression,” says Dr. Stacey Blyth, Director of Primary Care. “LeBauer Behavioral Medicine has a team of qualified counselors, and we’re able to work with them to develop a coordinated plan of care.”


Medicines that increase serotonin levels may be necessary for some patients with SAD. Traditional antidepressants are often used. If you have a known history of SAD, your doctor may recommend starting treatment with an antidepressant before your symptoms typically begin. 

It can take several weeks to start feeling the benefits from an antidepressant, which is one reason it’s important to use a combination of steps to help SAD and not rely solely on medication.

If you suspect you are suffering from seasonal affective disorder or any type of depression, it’s important to consult with your primary care physician as soon as possible. All LeBauer primary care providers are trained to help diagnose depression and counselors are available for virtual appointments with LeBauer Behavioral Medicine. 

If you are a new patient, you can request an appointment for primary care or counseling (336-547-1574) using our convenient online form or by calling the location most convenient for you. If you are an existing patient, you may call the office or request an appointment through MyChart

In the case of a mental health emergency, call 911. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is also available for free 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: Call 1-800-273-8255  (TTY 1-800-799-4889, for those who are deaf or hard of hearing)

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