Skip main navigation

Coronavirus and Seasonal Affective Disorder – How to Improve Your Mood this December

Many people find the winter months challenging at times, and this year could be especially difficult for some. We take a look at seasonal affective disorder, coronavirus, and some ways to improve your mood.

SAD - header

During the colder months of the year, the days are shorter, and we get less sunlight. For some people, this can signal the start of a difficult period. This year, in particular, things may seem a little more tough than usual. With this in mind, we explore the impacts of coronavirus and seasonal affective disorder, as well as some tips for improving your mood during December. 

As well as looking at the causes and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, we also examine what treatment options might be available and where you can get help. Whether you or someone you know is struggling during the pandemic, we also have some tips to help you during the winter. 

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder, often abbreviated to SAD, is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. You might also see it called seasonal depression or winter depression, as many people suffer from it during the colder months. However, some people suffering SAD express symptoms during summer and feel better in winter. 

According to stats from Bupa, around 3 in 100 people in the UK suffer from seasonal affective disorder. Symptoms generally start to show during our 20s or 30s, but children can also feel the effects. Women are around four times more likely to experience SAD than men. 

What causes it?

We don’t know exactly what causes SAD, although there are a few theories. The main ones are linked to a reduced exposure to sunshine thanks to the shorter days of autumn and winter. This, in turn, results in the body producing lower levels of the hormone serotonin, which affects mood, appetite and sleep, while producing more melanin, which makes you feel sleepy. 

The change in sunlight hours and the shift in daylight savings time could also interrupt our internal body clock. Our circadian rhythm, as it’s known, relies on sunlight to regulate certain functions. The interruption could cause symptoms of SAD.

How is SAD different from depression?

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression. The main difference is that, while regular depression can occur in episodes at any time of the year, SAD occurs only in seasonal patterns. Of course, a person could experience depression during the winter months, but this wouldn’t necessarily mean it is SAD. The latter follows a clear and regular pattern. 

Often, the symptoms and treatments for depression and SAD are the same. However, it’s important to remember that only a professional can diagnose you with depression or seasonal affective disorder. If you think you are experiencing either one, you should consult with a medical practitioner. 

What are the symptoms of SAD?

There are several common symptoms that may indicate someone is suffering with seasonal affective disorder. As we’ve mentioned, many of these are similar to those seen in depression. According to the NHS website, these include: 

  • Experiencing a persistent low mood
  • Finding you have a lack of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
  • Being irritable 
  • Having feelings of despair, guilt and/or worthlessness
  • Lacking energy and feeling constantly sleepy during the day
  • Oversleeping and finding it hard to get up in the mornings 
  • Gaining weight and craving carbohydrates

The severity of these symptoms may differ, but they’ll often last for extended periods of time. They can cause severe interruption to a person’s daily life, making even the simplest tasks seem impossible. 

Coronavirus and seasonal affective disorder

As we all know, this winter will be different from usual for many people. The coronavirus pandemic means that there are restrictions in place, as well as a lot of anxiety for people. With this in mind, some people are wondering whether we’ll see SAD symptoms that are worse or more widespread than usual. 

As well as limits on social interaction, we’re also facing more stress and anxiety than usual. Changes in jobs and education, as well as the potential for things like redundancy and money troubles, may cause added pressures. Of course, December is also usually a time for major festivals and gatherings, yet we still don’t know just how these will be affected. 

This combination of factors isn’t meant to dampen your spirits. However, it is important to highlight the issues that some people may be facing. What’s more, it’s worth noting that just about anyone can suffer with their mental health during these times. Whether it’s for you or someone you know, understanding the relevance of COVID-19 and seasonal affective disorder is useful. There are options for help available, and no one should shy away from these if the need arises. 

What treatments are available?

The first thing to mention when it comes to SAD treatments is that only a doctor can recommend the most suitable option for you. They will assess you based on the severity and nature of your symptoms. That being said, there are several options available. 

According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, seasonal affective disorder should be treated in the same way as other types of depression. This may include a mixture of methods such as: 

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy. CBT is a type of therapy that focuses on changing the way we think. It’s believed that changing our thoughts can impact how we feel. CBT programs are usually tailored to the individual and their needs. 
  • Counselling and talking therapies. Other types of talking therapy, such as counselling and psychodynamic psychotherapy, explore how you feel about yourself, your past, and your relationships with others. 
  • Antidepressants. It’s not known exactly how effective medication is in treating SAD. However, it’s thought they’re most effective when taken before symptoms appear, as it can take several weeks for them to take effect. 

Does light therapy work for seasonal affective disorder?

One of the solutions that’s often talked about for seasonal affective disorder is light therapy. With this treatment, you sit in front of a special lamp/light box for a certain amount of time each morning. The theory is that this light simulates sunlight, which helps boost the hormone serotonin and reduce the production of melanin.

Light therapy is listed on the NHS website as a treatment for SAD, although they clarify that it’s ‘not clear whether it’s effective’. Some studies have shown that 20-40 minute exposures to the treatment can reduce depression scores in those suffering with SAD. However, larger and more detailed studies are needed to fully determine how effective it is. 

It’s an option that’s worth discussing with your doctor, although you’ll likely need to purchase a light box yourself. 

Where can I get help? 

If you’re having a tough time at the moment, whether because of the coronavirus pandemic or with symptoms of SAD, there are several options available for help and support. Similarly, if you know someone who is suffering, it’s worth knowing some of the ways in which you can help them. 

Below, we’ve listed some of the resources that you can turn to. However, remember that if you’re suffering with signs of depression, you should visit your doctor. 

  • Samaritans. If you need someone to talk to, you can call them for free on 116 123 in the UK and ROI.
  • Mind.org.uk. UK mental health charity Mind has a selection of useful numbers and contacts for those suffering from SAD and depression. They also have a helpful page about how you can help someone with SAD
  • Mental Health America. On the MHA website, you can find a list of contact numbers and support for mental health issues.  
  • Government of Canada. Here, you’ll find relevant contact information for mental health support in Canada. 
  • Mental Health Australia. On this site, you’ll find resources and phone numbers to support you during difficult times.  
  • The NHS. You can find out more about some of the treatments available for seasonal affective disorder.
  • Understanding Anxiety, Depression and CBT course. Our course explores these areas of mental health, as well as how CBT can help. 

How to improve your mood this December

If you’re worried about experiencing symptoms of SAD this winter or concerned about the pandemic, it’s entirely understandable. However, there are some things you can try yourself to keep on top of these feelings. In a separate article, we cover some self-care tips for December. Much of that advice can apply here, so we won’t go into too much detail. 

Keep busy

Keeping your mind active can help reduce some of the symptoms of SAD, as well as keeping your thoughts off the pandemic. Although you might be limited in scope with what you can go out and do, there are plenty of new hobbies you can try from the comfort of your own home. 

If you can get as much sunlight as possible, that may also help. Whether it’s a regular walk during your lunchtime or sitting in a well-lit room, you should dry and soak up as many rays as you possibly can during winter. 

Practise self-care 

Our article on self-care goes into plenty of detail on some of the methods you can try and how they might help. With the colder weather, shorter days, and COVID-19 restrictions in place, it may be tempting to just write-off the rest of the year. However, as you go into December, you should take good care of your physical and mental health. 

You might want to take up practices like mindfulness or gratitude to help you feel better, or learn to cook some healthy recipes to improve your wellbeing. Whatever form it takes, being kind to yourself is an essential part of your winter wellness. 

Don’t neglect your routine 

Depending on your work or education situation, things might be a bit disrupted at the moment. This can mean that your usual schedule slowly slips into anarchy, which can be disastrous for your mental health. Try and avoid letting this happen. 

As well as your work/study to-do list, you may also want to set a regular sleep and mealtimes. These can help give your day structure and keep you feeling productive. If you throw some exercise into the mix too, you can help combat some of the symptoms of SAD. 

Keep talking 

A lot of people are finding things hard at the moment, and that’s to be expected. With so much uncertainty, feelings of anxiety and depression may start to creep in. However, you shouldn’t try and hide away from these feelings if it’s impacting your life. Talking with your family, friends, doctor, or other healthcare professional is important. 

Don’t suffer in silence – there are many places where you can get help during these difficult times. See our section above to find out about some resources and contact details if you need to talk. 

Final thoughts 

Clearly, winter is a difficult time for many people. And, with the coronavirus pandemic still impacting our lives, December might seem a little bit harder than usual. However, things like depression and seasonal affective disorder are well understood by healthcare professionals, and there is a lot of help out there. 

If you think you are suffering with your mental health, you should contact a doctor. They will be able to help you find the right treatment. There are also many things you can do to improve your mood this December, starting with a little self-care.

FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education

Related stories on FutureLearn