Home Health How to care for seasonal affective disorder during a pandemic

How to care for seasonal affective disorder during a pandemic

Pandemic anxieties are difficult to navigate on top of seasonal affective disorder.

Whether relying on favorite podcasts, journaling or making playlists, the scrappy members of Gen Z  are relying on media and technology to survive winter in the pandemic. With chilly weather and minimal sunshine, it may be hard to find ways to find joy and positivity in everyday activities. 

What’s more, winter generally tends to take a toll on mental health, but this year is a different beast. COVID-19, unfortunately, does not disappear once 2021 begins. Job losses still weigh heavily on the U.S., and political tensions remain.

For those who experience it, seasonal affective disorder (SAD: a type of depression related to seasonal changes) may hit a bit harder than normal. Not only is SAD its normal threat this winter, but the remnants of 2020 (i.e. COVID-19 and political tensions) make the season even harder. 

Empty streets amidst COVID-19.

COVID-19 and mental health 

COVID-19 has created many hardships throughout 2020 and has had a large impact on mental health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40 percent of Americans are struggling with substance use or their mental health. However, young adults are hit the hardest, with 75 percent grappling. 

According to an analysis by The Washington Post, suicidal thoughts have increased from 10.7 percent to 25.5 percent during the pandemic. Across all ages, suicidal thoughts increased from 4.3 percent to 11.0 percent.

“All the uncertainty caused by the pandemic and politics is making it harder for people to rely on coping strategies they normally use,” University of Minnesota psychiatrist Dr. C. Sophia Albot said to M Health Fairview. “The pandemic prevents people from connecting with people, making it incredibly more difficult for some to get the support they need.” 

She offered some tips.Connecting virtually, prioritizing sleep, staying active and taking a break from social media are some strategies to boost mental wellbeing. 

Recommended SAD treatment

According to Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of seasonal depression can include feelings of depression, low energy, difficulty sleeping, losing interest in activities you previously enjoyed. 

Prioritzing your health comes first. If feeling down for days at a time with little motivation for everyday routines, it is recommended to see a doctor. Psychotherapy and antidepressant medications can help if prescribed. 

The National Institute of Mental Health also lists light therapy and vitamin D as treatments. Light therapy has been a SAD treatment cornerstone since the ‘80s, NIMH explains, and aims to expose people to bright light to make up for diminished natural sunshine. However, as light therapy involves sitting in front of a light 20 times brighter than indoor light, it isn’t always safe for people with eye diseases or those who take certain medications that increase sunlight sensitivity. If you are looking to pursue one of these options, be sure to talk to a doctor first. 

Sage advice from a middle school student teacher

For young folks who look up to their teachers for advice, middle school student-teacher Justin Min is the best place to turn. Min currently student-teaches sixth and eighth-graders as a senior year education major at New York University. 

Min was inspired to post a video called “Is A Coronavirus Vaccine On The Way?,” in which he used his cheery personality to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine. The video’s goal was to spark conversation in a positive manner about hot topics in the news, which was a success given all the loved ones who reached out to him about the video.

“I wanted to be able to have a conversation about something like the news,” Min said. “I am hoping to put something else out just to keep that conversation going, so it’s been a really good outlet for me as well.” 

Before starting his student teaching, Min was a residential assistant at NYU. During previous winters, he found a few ways to maintain his mental health. 

“Last year during the winter I had a huge karaoke night,” Min remembered fondly. “For me, it was all about understanding the limitations of the outside, but expanding the possibilities on the inside. I love doing that by bringing people close in and remembering that [despite the weather,] there’s still a lot that I can do.”

Due to the pandemic, this year will be different. Min is big on virtual connections and realizing how lucky we are to have the technology. 

“What if we didn’t have smartphones? What if we didn’t have FaceTime,” Min wondered. “Even though meeting up with people is inaccessible at this point, it is still easy to connect with people.” 

Connections through friendships are necessary during these unprecedented times. Even a short phone call can lift spirits and help with feelings of loneliness and SAD. 

“I can learn a new skill, I can talk with friends, I can play games with friends, I can broadcast myself on the internet,” Min said. “I think we feel limited, but the possibilities right now are endless.”

Self-care aficionados’ rituals

Relying on favorite podcast hosts and music is an act of selfcare for many millennials and plenty of Generation Z. In particular, this year has truly put into perspective how technology can aid in mental wellbeing.

“Hold on. You’re going to grow as a human being in ways you couldn’t fathom,” said Tinny Williams in a message to her 2019 self. “Know that you’re going to feel your resilience.”

The world can always use more big sisters, so Jada Young and Williams decided to pursue their big sister roles professionally by starting a podcast. Big sisters pass on advice from life experiences in a unique and motherly way, but without judgement. 

Spending quarantine with family has reaffirmed this for both Young and Williams.  

“That has always been a part of our innate being,” 21-year-old Williams said. “We are big sisters. That’s why I think that we can advise at such a young age.” 

Williams is a communications student at California State University, Long Beach. Her cheery disposition is infectious and her smile lights up a Zoom. Young, who studies communications and psychology at Bellevue University, is a respected member of her community and described as a “guardian-angel” by friends. On top of their communications expertise, Young and Williams have had their own experiences with working through mental health diagnoses and have been to therapy for anxiety and depression, respectively. 

Willams and Young smiling in San Francisco.

The two met in middle school and have remained best friends ever since. In December, Young and Williams started their podcast to help people of all ages navigate life’s challenges.

As real-life big sisters, Williams and Young have a lot of advice to help with personal rough patches and SAD. Big sisters are the backbone of the family structure surviving. 

When the pandemic locked us inside, it confined big sisters closer to their siblings in a new way. And with self care being a popular topic of discussion, the two Gen-Zers make sure their siblings understand the importance of nurturing their mental health.    

“I like to walk outside and that is the beginning of me calming myself down,” Williams said, explaining her own anti-anxiety routines. “After I do that, I will order my favorite food and sit in my room with a candle and eat dinner in my bed, guilt-free.”

Williams likes to turn on an easy-going and joyous comedy, like “New Girl” or “The Office,” and relax. The key for her is understanding that the time she is spending is sacred, calming and purely for self-care. 

On the other hand, Young turns to music in times of strife. 

“I’ve made probably fifteen playlists that are just dedicated to self-care,” Young said. “Honestly, when I need a good night where I feel like  I need to release a lot of emotion, I’m not afraid to say Taylor Swift or any female singer-songwriter that talks about being young and heartbroken to me [is] the most comforting thing because it makes me remember there’s someone else out there that feels the same way.” 

Journaling and meditation are also key for her in times of high anxiety. In times of sadness, journaling also helps Young share her emotions through writing, rather than internalizing them.   

“Taking a moment to breathe and think about the thoughts that are going through my mind and wanting them to pass through,” Young urged. “Journaling helps with those anxious thoughts and getting them out, all on paper.”

What’s more, Williams has found a few tricks to help her fight difficult emotions during gray days. 

“You can’t control the outside forces that are making you feel low,” Willaims added. “One of those [tricks] is to just find one thing in my house that brings me joy.” 

For her, that means turning on her Christmas tree lights or watching happy movies. Both Williams and Young rely on media forces and friends to wrestle with mental health. 

Relatability is a skill Williams and Young possess gracefully. “Necessary Drama” will be available in 2021 on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and more. The silver-tongued and Tik Tok-fluent girls are hopeful their tips for self-care and well-being can help everyone around them and reach audiences of all ages.

“One of the people that I am targeting is my younger self,” said Young with a chuckle. “I think that it could definitely be a demographic of people who I feel like could find something to learn from or just laugh at or maybe just make them feel a little bit better about growing up.”

Sophia Ungaro
Sophia Rose Ungaro is Culturas resident writing intern. Ungaro hails from San Pedro, California. Growing up with a Navajo/Meztizo mother and a Sicilian father has given Ungaro a unique perspective on the world. In 2021 Ungaro will graduate from the University of Southern California with a B.A. in Journalism. Her beats are race, pop culture, and entertainment.
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