The SAD Truth: The Psychology Behind Isolation and Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Mary McCabe

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been isolating for most people, those with Seasonal Affective Disorder have additional problems to grapple with 

Seasonal Affective Disorder, otherwise known as SAD, is a type of depression that typically occurs during the winter months as the days begin to shorten. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the symptoms of SAD overlap with clinical depression, but some specific symptoms include oversleeping, weight gain, and social withdrawal. Researchers from NIMH also believe those with SAD may have lower serotonin levels, a brain chemical that helps regulate mood, since they are not receiving enough sunlight, which helps manage and maintain serotonin levels.

Social isolation, whether voluntary or not, has both serious psychological and physical side effects. Psychiatrists from the University of Chicago found that during a period of social withdrawal, the brain structures that assist the creation of social connections shrink. This shrinkage makes it harder for the brain to process social cues, thus affecting the isolated individual’s ability to empathize with others and control their emotions.

Unfortunately, many people feel the effects of isolation and depression, especially teens. For many high school students, the COVID-19 pandemic has deprived them of their main sources of social interaction: school, sports, and clubs. While technology and social media has become the main alternative for communication, it lacks the benefits of in person connection, such as the ability to read body language and a greater sense of trust. In a 2018 study by Cigna, researchers found that Gen Z —people born in the late 90’s-10’s —is the most lonely and isolated generation.

If you are feeling isolated, there are many steps you can take to improve your situation, such as reaching out to school counselors. You can also set time limits on any social media apps or video games, or consider going on short walks outside with a friend or family member.