By Lauren Kollauf on Monday, December 14, 2020

How to cope when COVID-19 and SAD combine this winter

Short days and colder temperatures – combined with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic – have many Iowans worried about their mental health in the months ahead. 

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression characterized by its recurrent seasonal pattern with symptoms lasting about 4 to 5 months per year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.


SAD symptoms

Since SAD is a form of major depressive disorder, many of the signs and symptoms overlap: 

  • 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

For winter-pattern SAD, additional specific symptoms may include:

  • Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
  • Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)

RELATED: Learn more about common mental illness conditions

More than "winter blues"

SAD is more severe than the "winter blues," explained Dr. Asma Khalid, resident psychiatrist at MercyOne Des Moines. 

"Normal stress and anxiety would not make us feel hopeless and would not make us feel depressed to the level of wanting to hurt ourselves," said Dr. Khalid. "If (your mood) is affecting your daily lifestyle and you cannot function or take care of yourself, it is more than just 'winter blues.'" 

If you're experiencing any of the symptoms related to SAD or major depressive disorder, Khalid urges to visit your primary care physician, a psychiatrist or therapist. 

RELATED: Make It OK to talk about mental illness


Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic is leading more people to experience depression for the first time or causing people with underlying depression to experience more severe symptoms, said Khalid.

Dr. Khalid

"Any sort of prolonged stress or uncertainty, like COVID-19, can elicit a lot of symptoms of depression," said Dr. Khalid. "This is a very stressful time for everyone."

RELATED: Access COVID-19 mental health resources in Iowa

Due to the pandemic, some of the most effective coping mechanisms for depression – such as socialization – are not as accessible. Social distancing and lack of social engagement can exacerbate depression symptoms.

"We release a lot of feel good hormones when we interact with other human beings. If we are limiting that, we are kind of hampering a lot of our own brain’s ability to recuperate from depressive symptoms," said Dr. Khalid.

Coping tips

What can Iowans do to ward off the symptoms of SAD or the "winter blues"? This is what Dr. Khalid recommends:

  • Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, tai chi or guided imagery
  • Art therapy
  • Music
  • Sun and/or bright light, preferably in the morning
  • Regular exercise
  • Maintain a sleep routine
  • Healthy eating habits

"This is not a sprint, this is a marathon," said Dr. Khalid. "Be on top of your mental health. Get help as soon as you need it.  Don’t postpone it and just call it winter blues." 

Access resources

If you need someone to talk to or if you need help accessing mental health resources, Your Life Iowa is available 24/7 to talk over phone, text or live chat. 

Call: (855) 581-8111
Text: (855) 895-8398
Live chat:

mioMake It OK is community campaign to reduce stigma by starting conversations and increasing understanding about mental illness.  Start by learning what a mental illness really is. Then, find out what to say and not to say when someone opens up to you.  You can also help others by sharing your own story to help people know they aren’t alone. Learn more about how you can get involved at