COVID Sadness: The New Seasonal Depression?

written by Skye Sherman - Jan 25, 2021
medically reviewed by Dr. Tolulope Olabintan, MD - Jul 5, 2021

COVID Sadness: The New Seasonal Depression?

We’ve added many new words to our collective dictionaries just in the past year. This time last year, terms like social distancing were not commonplace and wearing a mask was reserved mostly for healthcare workers.

Today, however, we’re living in a different world entirely. And that goes for seasonal disorders and mental health issues such as depression, too. Now, when you’re feeling down, you have to weigh whether your experience is seasonal affective disorder (SAD) vs a case of the winter blues vs pandemic sadness vs a true mental health problem. It can be difficult to discern what you are experiencing, but it’s important to take stock of what’s happening so you can address it properly.

So is COVID sadness the new seasonal depression? And what is COVID sadness, exactly? Is it a new form of seasonal depression, or is it simply something you can work through on your own?

In this article, we’ll take a look at how the pandemic has affected people’s mental health and how COVID-induced sadness may be interacting with long existing conditions such as seasonal depression.

Feeling down: seasonal depression, winter blues, or COVID sadness?

These days, feeling down during the wintertime may not automatically be a case of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or seasonal depression. There is a difference happening that the pandemic has brought about. However, it’s also possible that the pandemic has worsened cases of depression for many people. The seasonal changes brought on in any normal year are only exacerbated by the conditions brought about by the pandemic.

An article in Jersey’s Best states it best: “It’s winter in the middle of a pandemic: Seeing friends is complicated. Exercising is difficult. Taking in a concert is impossible and even going out for a modest dinner and a movie is fraught with risk. For many, money is tight. For everyone, the future is uncertain. Would anyone be surprised to find themselves depressed? For people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), however, their depression is different from mere pandemic fatigue.”

That’s because while many people may experience the blues during the wintertime, due to a lack of sunshine and fewer ways to enjoy time outdoors, not everyone experiences true seasonal depression, a behavioral and mental disorder. Those who do get SAD are enduring a subset of depression that is chemically linked to the reduction in daylight hours during this time of year. Their body chemistry changes and is triggered by the lack of sunlight. It’s different from typical clinical depression mostly in the timing; SAD is a seasonal disorder while typical depression is not necessarily linked to any environmental changes.

However, symptoms are similar in both cases: people experiencing SAD report lower amounts of energy, a tendency to overeat (especially carbs and comfort foods), isolation, and a lack of motivation to tackle their everyday lives (or even to get out of bed on some days). On the flip side, people suffering from SAD might experience restlessness, agitation, or insomnia. Sufferers may also see decreased activity and satisfaction in their sex lives as well as increased levels of stress, which can also trigger other conditions, such as IBS.

The article continues, “For someone who’s in a funk right now, how can they determine whether it’s classic depression, seasonal depression or pandemic fatigue? One red flag that feeling blue might be unrelated to the pandemic is the presence of anything in the patient’s medical history that hints at a predisposition for depression, such as a family history, or underlying risk factors, like thyroid disease, or medications that can exacerbate depression, such as steroids.”

It’s important to distinguish whether you are feeling depressed because of the unfortunate global circumstances or because your body is experiencing chemical and hormonal changes. It can be confusing to try to sort out the differences among all these conditions. However, there is a vital difference: sadness is a normal feeling in the range of human emotions. Everyone experiences sadness from time to time and while it is not fun, it is a natural byproduct when things go wrong (like a pandemic, for example).

Depression, on the other hand, is a true medical illness caused by the brain functioning or performing improperly due to imbalanced levels of the hormones that make up our moods and outlooks. It’s important to figure what category your feelings belong to so that you can approach the issue accordingly. In all cases, though, the issue is treatable and can be managed.

What causes seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

The article goes on to state, “While researchers don’t yet fully understand why the change in seasons hits some people so differently … there are patterns about what groups appear to be at higher risk:

* Residents in latitudes farther away from the equator. (Think Alaska versus Florida, for example.) The seasonal changes in the length of days there are more extreme, and those populations experience more SAD.

* Women are four times as likely to report a clinical drop in mood in winter.

* Young adults in their late 20s or early 30s also are at higher risk. While the reason for that remains unclear … it might be linked to the impact winter has on their social life.

* Treatment aims at resetting the changed chemistry by using ‘light therapy’ that mimics exposure to daylight, thus tricking the body into thinking daylight lasts longer.”

No matter how your funk may be properly categorized, no matter whether you’re feeling pandemic sadness, winter blues, or a true bout of seasonal depression, your reaction should be the same: it’s important to address it. Bring it up to the people you love, take steps to care for your mental health, and seek out help if you need it.

Steps you should take: dependent on whether it’s depression, SAD, or COVID blues

While the end result remains the same no matter what you’re going through -- which is that you need to do something about it -- you still need to get to the bottom of it all and understand what exactly you’re facing.

In other words, it’s important to understand the difference so that you can treat it properly. For example, if you are experiencing SAD, light therapy may be a huge help and a major boost to your mood. But if your winter blues are a case of COVID sadness or even a full-blown depressive episode, exposure to light may be powerless to help you. Instead, you’d need to take other steps, such as seeking out professional help in the case of clinical depression.

In the same way, those experiencing COVID sadness may not require the intervention of a professional or prescription medications, but may need to change up their routine a bit to fill their days with things that make them happier, such as new hobbies, more conversations, healthier food, regular exercise, and a reliable sleep schedule.

COVID sadness may be difficult to endure, but you may not necessarily need to start taking antidepressant drugs in order to feel better. In cases where there is not a mental disorder chemically altering your mood, you may be able to simply take matters into your own hands by prioritizing self-care, removing unnecessary pressure from yourself and your life, and connecting more with loved ones.

Below, we’ll get more into the steps you can take to start moving toward brighter days ahead.

So how can you battle COVID sadness this winter?

Feelings of anxiety, nervousness, sadness, and unease are natural side effects of a time of crisis such as a pandemic. It does not make them pleasant to endure, but at least you know you are not alone and much of the global situation is out of your control. From there, you can work on your mindset and approach to gaining a healthy perspective of what you are facing.

An article in MindWell states, “A psychology professor at the University of Toronto, Steve Joordans, shows concern as the pandemic seems to have made anxiety a dominant mental health issue with the uncertainty of when people’s lives will return to normal. He is concerned that the anxiety due to the pandemic may turn into depression as the winter months approach. ‘So if we’re heading into winter with less sunshine, less ability to get social interaction, less opportunity for aerobic activity, less job security for some ... I worry we might see depression rates increase.’”

The article continues, “It is important to get ahead of your mental well-being and plan to keep up with things like social interactions, routines and self-care … It is important to start thinking about what you can do to prioritize your mental well-being. Social interactions are a big part of people’s lives that will be affected even more so in the colder months - it is important to find alternatives like frequent FaceTime calls with family and friends.”

Perhaps most important of all, no matter what your condition is, you should reach out if and when you are feeling low. Connecting with others and sharing your feelings, even if you have to do so online, is vital to ensuring your mental health, especially as we continue to endure times of forced isolation. Talking about it is the first step, and will help you either feel better or realize that you need to seek out additional support.

The good news when it comes to COVID sadness is that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. As the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out and life starts to slowly return to “normal,” you should expect to start feeling better and having happier days. If you remain feeling down and depressed while the rest of the world seems to have moved on, that’s a sign to seek out further help.



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While the above article is based on thorough research, we do not claim to offer a substitute for medical advice from a qualified healthcare provider. The article was written for information and educational purposes only. We aim to provide helpful information to our readers, but cannot provide a treatment, diagnosis, or consultation of any sort, and we are in no way indicating that any particular drug is safe or appropriate for you and your individual needs. To receive professional medical attention, you must see a doctor.