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Covid-19 pandemic may actually help ease seasonal affective disorder symptoms for some

“I don't feel as isolated because there are so many people in the same spot."

When the crickets start to hum in the late summer and families start back-to-school shopping, Michele Sheerman can sense her looming seasonal affective disorder, otherwise known as SAD.

But this season hasn’t been so bad.

As the coronavirus pandemic stretches into the fall and the winter, some people who cope with the disorder, a type of depression usually associated with shorter days and less sunlight, may experience milder symptoms, psychologists suggest.

Sheerman, 48, who dubs herself as a “lifelong SADie”, is one of them. She attributes her milder symptoms so far to the camaraderie and shared experience she has had amid the pandemic.

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“I don't feel as isolated because there are so many people in the same spot,” she said. “I am finding it less oppressive and less severe this year.”

Michele Sheerman using a light box to cope with her SAD symptoms.
Michele Sheerman using a light box to cope with her SAD symptoms.Courtesy Michele Sheerman

Craig Sawchuk, a psychologist at the Mayo Clinic, said that depending on the individual, it’s possible for people with the disorder to have milder symptoms this season if they developed healthy routines as quarantine orders took effect, such as waking up at the same time every day, carving out time for relaxation and maintaining support systems.

“They've been forced earlier in the year to make some pretty big, but healthy changes and habits and daily rhythms and other things. And that may be protective going forward heading into the winter months,” he said.

Lata McGinn, a professor of psychology at Yeshiva University, agreed that it’s possible for people with the disorder to have lighter symptoms this season, but cautioned that they can also fare worse because of the pandemic. “You might be in good company on the one hand and you might be doing a little less than you normally do in the winter if you’re already vulnerable,” she said.

Scott Bea, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, agreed. “If folks have been taking steps to form great habits to eat well, move their bodies and connect with others, that would be good protection against depression,” he said.

Both psychologists said it’s possible that people with the seasonal affective disorder could fare better this season, but cautioned that may not be the case for everyone. “I don't think it will be necessarily unified,” Bea said.

John Anderson, 37, has had the disorder since his early 20s. Like Sheerman, his symptoms have eased up because of the pandemic.

“When you have seasonal depression, people don't always understand it, they don't understand what you're going through, or some people might not believe that it even exists,” he said. But this year, Anderson has had an easier time talking to people because, “we're all in the same boat right now.”

“Getting out in daylight is really a great thing,” Bea said. He recommends people with the disorder who have the flexibility to work from home to squeeze in some daylight throughout the day.

Connecting with people is one of the tips experts give to those dealing with the disorder. But that can be a challenge this year because your risk of getting Covid-19 increases with the more people you interact with at a gathering, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Because that recommendation conflicts with current public health recommendations, Bea says people with the disorder have to adapt and accept feeling uncomfortable.

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“Try some new and novel things that we haven't tried before,” he said. For example, instead of calling them virtual gatherings, just call them gatherings, he advised. "I would try to get away from thinking that the way we socialized is artificial, and just call it the real thing."

Sawchuck also recommended using a light box that’s 10,000 lux in intensity — lux is a measure of brightness — getting enough sleep and maintaining structure throughout the day.

Anderson tends to overeat and shy away from people during the coldest months of winter. But this year, he’s taking extra steps to reach out to friends and not take them for granted. “You start to realize that, what if they're not here tomorrow.”