Although the symptoms of SAD normally disappear completely every summer, Dr. Rohan said, “in the summer of 2020 we didn’t see a full remission in our patients. With such big stresses going on, they are overriding the seasonal pattern.”
Dr. Rohan fears that the anxiety and stress provoked by the pandemic will increase the risk and severity of winter depression for everyone. “It’s possible that those with subclinical SAD will become clinical,” she said. “People will be limited in what they can do to stay well even if they normally have good coping resources.”
However, Dr. Rosenthal said, “Just understanding the issues can give people a blueprint for handling them more effectively.” Most helpful for people with SAD, he said, is exposure to sunlight or its artificial equivalent for 20 to 30 minutes every morning. The standard amount of light needed is 10,000 lux. Sitting under a commercial light box at least one-foot square will do the job. Also helpful is using a dawn simulator in the bedroom or a light set on a timer to turn on 10 or 20 minutes before you get up.
My late husband was helped by walking the dog for half an hour or so every morning after sunrise.
“A 20-minute early morning walk in the sun is as good as commercial light therapy,” Dr. Rosenthal said, “but while morning is best, whenever you can do a walk is helpful. The combination of exercise and outdoor light is crucially important. It connects you with your environment — not just the light but also the birds, trees, animal life, neighborhood — all can act as an antidote to the cocoon of isolation.”
Our conversation reminded me of the spirit-lifting tactics I had adopted during the devastating early months of the pandemic, when my city was the epicenter of Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths. I made a point of finding something every day that brought joy: new growth on neighborhood trees, emerging blooms in people’s yards, watching my dog play with his canine pals, flirting with toddlers on the street, doing an evening shout-out for our essential workers who put their lives on the line for the rest of us.
“Don’t squeeze joy out of your life,” Dr. Rosenthal said emphatically. “There’s got to be joy every day. It’s an upfront investment that pays off handsomely.” He suggested taking classes online, perhaps learning to make jewelry or paint or play an instrument. Also very important is staying connected with people, perhaps by scheduling a socially distant lunch date or joining a friend for coffee or tea.