British Columbia

Expert advice on how to cope when pandemic anxiety collides with seasonal depression

Heightened pandemic anxiety could lead to worsening seasonal depression symptoms, but experts says some self-guided measures can help.

‘Unquestionably the best treatment is light therapy,’ says expert

Experts say seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression brought on by winter, which, this year, could also be exacerbated by pandemic anxiety. (Panitanphoto/Shutterstock)

The impacts of COVID-19 have already affected the mental health of many British Columbians, and with winter looming, some health experts worry that pandemic anxiety will heighten seasonal affective disorder.

"The pandemic is causing people to further isolate and stay inside, which is going to further decrease their exposure to natural light ... the key driver of seasonal depression," says psychiatrist Dr. Robert Levitan, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Toronto.

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — which affect up to five per cent of Canadians — typically begin when the days get shorter in November —and lasts until March, with some experiencing symptoms into the summer months.

Researchers believe SAD can be triggered when our biological clocks — which control sleep and wake patterns — are disturbed due to fewer daylight hours.

"Unquestionably, the best treatment is light therapy," said Levitan.

Light therapy involves exposure to bright, artificial ultraviolet light for about 30 minutes every morning which resets the body's internal clock.

Various types of light therapy devices are available for people to safely use at home, according to Levitan. 

"That will help them make the transition from rest to feeling energized, and therefore help their mood significantly," he said.

A light therapy lamp.
Light therapy mimics outdoor light, affecting brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep, to ease symptoms of seasonal depression. (London Public Library)

Experts say the major symptom of SAD is a despairing mood that is present most days and which lasts for more than two weeks, impairing a person's performance at work, school or in social relationships.

Other symptoms:

  • Changes in appetite and weight.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Loss of interest in work, hobbies, people or sex.
  • Withdrawing from family and friends.
  • Feeling useless, excessively guilty, pessimistic or having low self esteem.
  • Irritability.
  • Crying easily or feeling the need to cry but not being able to.
  • Trouble concentrating, remembering and making decisions.

Symptoms can even extend to suicidal thinking, which Levitan says is an emergency situation that needs urgent assessment by a health-care professional.

Some of the best ways to keep symptoms at bay, according to Levitan, is to get active early in the day no matter the weather and try to safely interact with others on a frequent basis.

With files from On the Island