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It is no secret that COVID-19 has created a major disruption in our lives and at this point it’s something we are tired of talking about. To those that struggle with their mental health, this time of year can be challenging for multiple reasons. COVID continues to add additional stress, worry, and uncertainty to an already difficult time.
Every year, roughly 5% of adults in the U.S. experience Seasonal Affective Disorder. Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is defined as a type of depression with a seasonal pattern. Although there is no definite answer as to why SAD occurs, studies show this disorder is due to a lack of Vitamin D, overproduction of melatonin and difficulty regulating serotonin2. Basically, those that live farther away from the equator experience more hours of darkness and can make it harder to do the things that make us happy. Symptoms of SAD are the same as depression, the only difference is that people experience these symptoms at a much higher rate during the fall and winter.
For those that experience SAD or any mental health diagnosis, the onset of winter with a pandemic can seem frightening. Those of us in Western New York are all too familiar with winters that make it difficult to leave your house and feel like they last forever. Many people are trying to remain safe and socially distanced and this may mean not being around family and friends. Isolation and seclusion can be very dangerous for people with depression and anxiety. Currently in our area we are experiencing increased infection rates, which results in gyms, salons, and restaurants closing. These are typically places of socialization and provide fulfilment for people. Feeling trapped and isolated are common symptoms for SAD and pandemic stress, this time of year these feelings are going to be compounded.
COVID also complicates interventions or things you can do to combat SAD and feelings of sadness or loneliness. Here are somethings that are recommended for people experiencing SAD, depression, or other mental health symptoms:
· Light Therapy- Reduced sunlight creates a lack of vitamin D and drops serotonin levels. People with SAD have been known to produce more melatonin, which helps regulate our sleep cycle but can also make us feel tired even after getting adequate rest2. Light therapy mimics natural light and can be especially helpful to get out of bed and can increase motivation to start the day. Using a light box can increase vitamin D levels and better regulate serotonin. Prices for light therapy boxes can be anywhere from $25.00 to $150.00 and can be found in many stores or Amazon.
· Body Movement- Moving our bodies and being active are so important for our mental and physical health. Our harsh winters make it difficult to walk or be outside and COVID adds another barrier with gyms closing. However, it’s proven that even minimal movements like daily stretching, yoga, and tai chi are powerful tools. There are multiple resources on the internet for free classes or instruction on basic stretching to advanced yoga.
· Socialization- COVID has made socializing and interacting very challenging. We want to be social but also be safe. This pandemic has caused people to get creative in how we interact and meet. It is important to stay connected with family and friends, even if it cannot be done in person. Between the weather and pandemic, it is very easy to get into a pattern of isolation and seclusion. During this winter it’s essential to really lean into your support system and be present, even if you can’t be there.
· Get Help- Many people experience feelings of depression, grief, anxiety, and lack of motivation at this time of year. But if you find yourself unable to get out of bed, losing interest in activities, and unable to complete daily tasks of living; its time to reach out for help. When symptoms of SAD or depression start interfering with your daily functioning you need to reach out to a medical professional or mental health provider. It is important to pay attention to your symptoms and any unsafe feelings or thoughts of self-harm.
If you are feeling unsafe or having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to crisis services immediately at 716-834-3131.
 American Psychiatric Association. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). October 2020.
 National Institute of Mental Health. Seasonal Affective Disorder. Updated March 2016.
Written by: Social Worker - Jessica Wulf, LMSW