Seasonal affective disorder could hit harder because of COVID regulations, says expert

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People who are normally affected by seasonal affective disorder (SAD) may experience worse symptoms and they could be felt earlier this year, according to one University of British Columbia (UBC) professor.

“We know, even from surveys being done now, that the number of people with depressive symptoms has increased since COVID and the pandemic restrictions,” said Dr. Raymond Lam, professor of psychiatry at UBC.

SAD is a term used to describe clinical depression when it’s only experienced during winter months. Lam said symptoms include low mood, trouble finding motivation and loss of interest in activities. 

“There are a lot of physical symptoms as well and those physical symptoms are a little different than other types of depression in that it’s more related to oversleeping; sleeping too much; having trouble getting up in the morning; overeating; carbohydrate craving [and] gaining weight during their depression,” he said. 

It is not clear exactly what causes SAD, but the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) says it is thought to be caused by lack of sunlight and shorter days. According to the CMHA website, SAD can also run in families; 13-17 per cent of people who develop the disorder have an immediate family member who also experiences SAD.

Lam said one theory behind the cause of the disorder is the inability for people’s biological clock to adjust to changing day lengths in the winter. People can experience different severities of the disorder — Lam said some people who only get the “winter blues,” could experience more severe symptoms because of added pandemic stress this year.

He said people can mitigate this is by keeping a regular schedule, staying active and by getting enough light. “Outdoor light is much brighter than indoor light. Even very bright office light. Outdoors on a cloudy day in Vancouver, or Vancouver Island, is 5-10 times as bright as the brightest indoor lighting,” he said. 

SAD is not believed to be affected by temperature, according to Lam, but only the amount of light in the day — he said the disorder is most prevalent in the northern hemisphere. Since Vancouver has a moderate climate, it is a good place for Lam to study the disorder because there are not factors of isolation caused by cold weather to complicate his research.

Spending more time outdoors can help to treat SAD, but another option is bright light exposure using a light that is much brighter than normal indoor lighting, Lam said.

“People use it for 30 minutes in the early morning when they get up at a time when it is not ordinarily light out because morning light seems to be more helpful for people with SAD,” he said.

Some SAD symptoms could also be caused by more serious issues and Lam suggests people who struggle with symptoms should consult their family doctor before trying to treat them.

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