Handling Seasonal Affective Disorder and Isolation During a Pandemic

Athletes Connected’s COVID-19 series tackles a common winter malaise: Seasonal Affective Disorder. Coupled with the isolation associated with the pandemic and a unique combination needs to be addressed.

By Jonah Silk, LLMSW, Athletic Counseling Fellow

Have you noticed in the winter that you do not feel as motivated for lifting? Or maybe your sleep pattern is off? Is it harder to get going for a morning practice, or for a night class, now that it’s dark and cold?

Some people notice they experience symptoms consistent with depression that are related to changes in seasons. You may have heard this referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or seasonal depression. Seasonal depression often begins and ends at about the same time every year.

You may notice as the winter goes on the feelings you are having are getting worse, at the same time you have other responsibilities.

In most cases, seasonal affective disorder symptoms appear during late fall or early winter and go away during the sunnier days of spring and summer. Less often, people with the opposite pattern have symptoms that begin in spring or summer. You may notice as the winter goes on the feelings you are having are getting worse, at the same time you have other responsibilities.

During the pandemic, it is common to be carrying a greater emotional load than usual. Yet, with school, athletics, and work, we are still expected to perform. It is OK to need some help. Even if you don’t have SAD, you may notice changes with the season and the daylight, especially with increased isolation this year due to the pandemic. Many of us are experiencing additional challenges to our mental health with less in-person interaction and screen fatigue.

Signs and symptoms of SAD may include:
There are a variety of symptoms that may indicate seasonal depression. These may include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day;
  • Lost interest in activities you once enjoyed;
  • Low energy and problems with sleeping, or experienced changes in your appetite or weight;
  • Feeling more sluggish, agitated, hopeless, worthless, or guilty;
  • Having difficulty concentrating, or;
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide.

What can you do? Here are some treatment options.
The good news is there are many skills, tools, and treatments available for those diagnosed with or struggling with symptoms of seasonal depression. Remember it is OK to not feel OK. Here are some things to consider:

  1. Get support from a mental health professional. If you think you may be depressed, consider seeing an athletic counselor.
  2. Big goals are hard to achieve overnight. Break large tasks into small ones, set priorities, and do what you can in the present moment.
  3. Cook, and eat healthy, well-balanced meals.
  4. Stay away from alcohol and drugs. These can make depression worse.
  5. Let your family and/or friends help you — but do not use them to replace therapy.
  6. Exercise consistently; During the pandemic it is harder, but in addition to the workouts given to you by your team, there are limitless online videos you can seek out, including yoga. You may also try cycling, hiking, or another outdoor, socially distanced activity with a friend.
  7. Spend time outdoors in the sun when possible. There are many trails around town including the Nichols Arboretum that are beautiful to walk even in winter. Or walk around town looking at the murals and graffiti art.
  8. Study on a patio or at a coffee shop that now have heaters outside during the pandemic. 
  9. Connect with family and friends, whether in person or via Zoom
  10. Keep a normal sleep and waking schedule
  11. Use Vitamin D supplements, but always consult with your physician before taking new supplements
  12. Mindfulness and meditation — Here are three helpful videos
      Mindful Self-Compassion
      The 10-Second Breath
  13. Gratitude Journaling
  14. Spend time with pets or connecting with nature
  15. DIY Projects, creative projects, arts and crafts. 
  16. Watch television shows, documentaries, and movies, listen to podcasts or music, read books, or other hobbies that you enjoy
  17. Engage in light therapy by sitting in front of a special therapy lamp (10,000 lux or more) for 30-45 minutes a day.  It is typically most effective to use these first-thing in the morning. Learn more about light therapy.

Additional Resources:

About the Author

Jonah Silk is the Ehrenberg Family Fellow of Athletic Counseling as part of the U-M Athletics Counseling Team. After moving around the East Coast in his youth, Jonah graduated from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and a minor in Holocaust Studies. He played for the varsity soccer team and had some stints abroad in Spain and in Sweden before settling into coaching in New Jersey. Jonah moved to Ann Arbor in 2018 and earned his Master’s Degree in Social Work from U-M in 2020. Jonah interned at the Judson Center in Warren, Michigan, prior to joining the athletic department. Jonah enjoys playing hockey and still tries to skate over at the A2 Ice Cube when he isn’t playing with his dog Jasper.