Seasonal Depression and COVID-19: 5 Elements of a Perfect Storm:
How can we get through another Lansing, MI winter during a pandemic?
Winter is coming to Lansing. Shorter days still manage to catch us off guard on a primal level. We may look out the window and see bleakness as life returns again to a state of dormancy.
At the same time, it’s obvious that COVID-19 has presented us with metaphoric dark times, even as we entered the summer solstice this past year. (1) And now, the days are also literally darker.
This could be a major challenge this year, especially for those who are vulnerable to SAD. (Seasonal Affective Disorder)
That’s a double whammy.
If you’ve already been battling depression, regardless of the season, well, that’s a TRIPLE whammy.
For those who have also had a traumatic past or have been diagnosed with severe depression or other health issues, the sheer energy required to break out of a complex downward spiral could easily become overwhelming. It may even feel downright impossible.
If you happen to be going through your own personal existential crisis or “dark night of the soul,” you are fighting a battle with 5 fronts.
Now THAT is a PERFECT storm.
I don’t want to sugarcoat anything that you are experiencing right now. This shit is real. But I do want to offer hope for those of you who are “just barely hanging in there.” First, let’s look at the signs and symptoms of severe depression.
Note: All of the information in this blog is for informational purposes only and is not designed to take the place of medical care, especially if I’m not working with you as a current patient.
If you’re having suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area at any time (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline).
Symptoms of major depression may include:
* Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
* Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
* Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
* Having problems with sleep
* Feeling sluggish or agitated
* Having low energy
* Feeling hopeless or worthless
* Having difficulty concentrating
* Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
Depression is very common, and potentially disabling. I’m not going to discuss it in depth in this blog, but I want to remind you that depression is real, despite the stigma. Some still even consider the condition to be a character flaw that we can just “snap out of.”
Until the general public becomes more aware about depression, I just want you to know that I understand how serious it is and that I approach the treatment of depression with compassion, because I’ve been there myself.
Let’s take a look at the next layer, seasonal depression or seasonal affect disorder (SAD), otherwise known as “the winter blues.”
There are some fascinating studies and observations I want to share with you.
Geography, Culture, and Seasonal Depression
It’s probably no surprise to you that SAD seems to affect more people in northern latitudes. But I would guess that many people that live in the United States, with the exception of Alaska, have a hard time imagining what it’s like to have days that are drastically shorter or longer, depending on the season.
People that live in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway experience much bigger shifts in mood and energy in between summer and winter. Sweden, in fact, is a world leader and innovator with light therapy.
Interestingly, Iceland seems to be less affected. This could be due to a cultural predisposition to “reframing” cold dark days as “cozy” and a time for comfort and reflection. (2)
Living in a valley or in the shadow of hills or mountains can also affect how much light you are exposed to, potentially exacerbating the effects of shorter days. There is also a link to increased depression in regions that have a higher percentage of cloudy or rainy days, such as the Pacific Northwest or the UK.
There is no clear-cut and definitive pattern, but these insights can perhaps inform why and how we make our own decisions about how we cope with seasonal changes.
The mechanism: Theories about why some of us suffer from seasonal depression
There are several scientific theories about how light may have an effect on our mood:
• A lack of light, or insensitivity to it, may disrupt brain processes influenced by serotonin and dopamine, brain chemicals that play a role in mood.
• Because some people’s eyes are less sensitive to light, their circadian clock is no longer synchronized with the outside world.
• Some people produce more of a hormone called melatonin during winter than in summer—just like certain other mammals, causing them to hibernate.
• Lack of Vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to depression, seasonal depression, decreased immune function, increased cancer risk, and more. (3) As with adrenal fatigue, you’ll also find literature that will tell us that the condition doesn’t really exist. (4)
I’m all for more research, but in the meantime, I’m going to go on a limb and assume that some of you find that you are negatively affected by seasonal changes, particularly in the autumn and winter.
The Symptoms of SAD:
For winter-pattern SAD, the symptoms are similar to classic depression, but may include additional specific symptoms:
* Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
* Low energy
* Low mood: feeling “down.”
* Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
* Weight gain
* Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)
If any of the following apply to you, that’s “real” enough for me. I firmly believe that the meaning we assign to our experiences, including our health, is not only valid but contributes to the root causes of our pain, suffering, and dis-ease.
The effect of COVID-19 on mental health
Taking the effect of COVID-19 into consideration, here’s a list of the potential ways that the crisis has impacted our mental health. This list can be supported with the research that I’ve done, but also via my own observations of patients in my clinic, and even my own anecdotal experiences.
One or more of these may apply to you:
• Isolation and a lack of social connection. This seems pretty obvious to me.
• A sense of loss or grief. You are mourning for the things you loved but have lost this past year. Maybe a loved one, maybe a business or your job or your home. Other losses include the things that helped us stay sane when things got crazy: gatherings, concerts, movies, getting a karate blackbelt.. all the things that kept you going, have disappeared practically overnight. You may miss the way things were before.
• A feeling of enui and a lack of interest in the things that used to bring you pleasure. Even people that enjoy being at home seem to be unenthusiastic about their favorite activities, like reading, watching movies, cooking, or other hobbies. This could be one of the consequences of the lockdowns.
• A “blah” feeling due to lack of exercise or even weight gain as a result of the lockdowns and lack of access to gyms, yoga studios, and fitness facilities. When we are not engaging in healthy habits, it’s easier fall into a pit of depression that can be difficult to climb out of.
• Feeling off-balanced and ungrounded due to a lack of structure or control that a daily schedule can provide.
• Feeling powerless about your future
• A lack of meaning or sense of purpose. To me, this can PROFOUNDLY affect our health on every level: Physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. (5)
The Role of Stress, Past Trauma, and Chronic Pain and Dis-Ease in Depression and The”Winter Blues”
Now, let’s take a look at another dimension: chronic pain, past trauma, and even dis-ease. These things haven’t gone away, and won’t anytime soon.
I believe that past traumas can create lasting effects on our physical and mental health, and that it is important to address some of the hidden root causes of our pain in order to heal.
I’ve witnessed how chronic pain and dis-ease can contribute to depression and anxiety in my clinic.
In the past, (before COVID -19) it may have been easier to get the help and support you needed.
Some studies and surveys show that people aren’t seeking out the care they used to before the pandemic, especially for mental health. (6) And now we have our “perfect storm.”
Signs of Hope for those suffering from depression during the pandemic
Many of the recommendations made by the CDC and other institutions are community-based strategies. They address public health issues either directly (i.e. help for those with suicidal ideation) or indirectly (i.e.providing financial assistance to those who are most feeling the impact of the pandemic and the resulting lockdown measures) This is fine. But something is missing.
To me, what’s missing is authentic human-to-human connection. I love the shared desire to make healing possible on a DEEP level. This is one of the things that gives me a deep sense of meaning and purpose, and this purpose too, has been negatively and profoundly affected by the events of 2020.
One of my mottos in life is: Anything is Possible
Look.. life is hard enough as it is. I don’t think we need more studies to prove that life is difficult and that we all have our own unique set of challenges that lie before us. Studies don’t tell the whole story about YOUR story. The typical generic advice currently dispensed by many media outlets may not be enough.
If you could use some support right now…
Yes, chiropractic can help with seasonal depression. (I use the Heart Technique for helping you heal on an emotional level) You can see me in my clinic. I’m open for business. My job is to truly LISTEN to you and take the meaning you assign to your pain or condition into consideration. With this information, we can determine the root cause of your depression.
If you would rather not go out right now, we can set you up with remote (telehealth) visits.
These visits are designed to not only deliver care, but help to keep you on track between regular visits, because I know so many could really use that extra support right now.
I also want to give you some tools that you can combine with treatment (for the best effect) or do on your own, so that you can become more empowered when it comes to managing your own physical and mental health:
Tips for getting through the winter blues:
• Get outside for a dose of sunlight when you first wake up in the morning for 20-30 minutes. Natural light is best, but alternatives include light boxes and dawn simulators. (7)
• Make sure you are getting enough vitamin D. Again, the best source is direct sunlight.
• Stay connected. I’ll be writing more about this in an upcoming blog.
• Be creative about ways to keep moving. Work on making it easy to engineer more movement into your life, whether it’s a basement workout area, an online fitness channel, using the stairs more often, standing desks, mini work breaks, etc.
• STOP watching the news and START immersing yourself in inspiring books, films, podcasts, and ideas. I’m not just talking about cute dog videos, but information that has a positive effect on your brain and encourages making decisions, even micro-decisions, that lead to a healthy mindset. You can even combine exercise with listening to your favorite podcast.
• Be pro-active. Treat mild depression before it becomes severe. If you are predisposed to seasonal depression, don’t wait till the winter solstice to get help. (See my blog about adrenal fatigue during the holiday season.. which is still relevant, but maybe for different reasons)
The Existential Crisis or Dark Night of the Soul
I want to wrap up this blog by taking into consideration one other factor that is seldom talked about: The existential crisis or Dark Times that most of us experience at some point in our lives.
These times can do more than disrupt our lives. They tend to be rites of passage that really suck to go through, but are transforming events that make us stronger, wiser, and more compassionate. If you are entering such a period right now, along with seasonal depression and the effects of the COVID crisis, (including isolation and a lack of human connection) you may be in for a rough ride.
I’m not an expert on this, but I do want to mention that it’s not something to dismiss or take lightly. Not every case of depression is best handled with strictly evidence-based solutions, such as medication or CBT. That’s too simplistic for me.
I can say this: If you are also experiencing a concentric existential crisis, I want you to know that you are NOT alone. If you are experiencing even a few of the components of the “perfect storm” right now, here’s what I want you to know:
Lack of meaning and Life is hard enough. You are an individual.. Nobody else can live life like you do. It belongs to you. Take care of You have my entire heart. I’ll put everything I have into helping you get through and come out strong on the other side.
If you need help with dealing with depression or anxiety in Lansing or anywhere in Michigan, I’m here for you. I also work with patients who are struggling with hard-to-treat conditions that many have an underlying emotional root cause.
It’s NOT just “in your head.” It’s real!
Call us at (517) 372-1381 to book an appointment!