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The Head, the Heart and the Holidays: Tackling seasonal affective disorder during a pandemic

With the holidays approaching, weather turning colder and the COVID-19 pandemic, the stress you're feeling is very real.

CLEVELAND — The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on our mental health, no matter who you are. Tack on the weather turning colder, days growing darker and the stress of figuring out how to still celebrate the holidays this year, your mind can lose control.

That's why 3News is launching a new series called "The Head, the Heart and the Holidays," which is aimed at addressing the different stressors on our mental health right now and finding solutions and relief so we can all have a better holiday season.

Something provoking the sadness we feel as the winter months approach, pandemic or not, is called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. This is a type of depression brought on by the darker days and colder weather where our body does not get enough sunlight to brighten our mood. SAD can lead to lack of energy, motivation or feeling sluggish, something we've all felt at one point thanks to the restrictions put in place because of COVID-19.

"It's like a double whammy. You're in this pandemic, as we said before we're social people. [We might think] 'Oh, my heart hurts that I'm not around other people,"' explains Chief Chief Clinical Officer, Dr. Leslie Koblentz with the Alcohol, Drug Addiction, and Mental Health Services of Cuyahoga County.

We asked her how to work through all these feelings. Here are three of her suggestions:

1- Eat better

"A couple of the things that I would suggest is we've got to keep up our eating well," Dr. Koblentz says.

The Cleveland Clinic has done studies linking the certain types of food we eat with how we feel. This is because of the following neurotransmitters in the brain:

  • Serotonin: A chemical released after eating carbohydrates (such as fruit, dairy, starches and sugars) that enhances calmness, improves mood and lessens depression. Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan. High levels of serotonin control appetite and satisfy cravings.
  • Dopamine and norepinephrine: Chemicals released after eating protein (such as meat, poultry, dairy and legumes) that enhance mental concentration and alertness. These neurotransmitters come from the amino acid tyrosine.

2- Get better sleep

"We need to sleep, and I don't mean sleep just laying around the couch all day. That's not helping anybody. You still need to hold to some structure in your life," Dr. Koblentz says.

University Hospitals put out similar tips including getting better rest, saying:

"Moreover, as we know that poor sleep quality is a significant contributing factor to depression, maintaining a daily routine can do much to improve poor sleep or maintain good sleep quality."

3- Staying connected to yourself and others

"It's important to talk to somebody. There's so many virtual places in Cleveland that if you're not wanting to go out, and of course we don't want people to go, you can pick up the telephone, you can virtually talk to a professional, talk to a counselor. You can go out and do something you like," says Dr. Koblentz.

The same resource from UH also stresses this, and includes doing things like getting regular exercise. 

Something else to battle seasonal affective disorder is light therapy, designed to expose you to light that mimics sunlight, and sends happier thoughts to your brain. According to a Cleveland Clinic study, 70 percent of those who have the disorder, and used light therapy for a half hour, saw improvements.

Just ask Willie Boyd, who uses the therapy, and works for a mental rehabilitation center called Magnolia Clubhouse, after realizing he suffered from SAD at age 25.

"There was a breaking point at an apartment of mine at the time, and I was really depressed," Boyd explains. "I had some issues with work, and work wasn't going well. And it was that time of the season, and I just couldn't think."

But to get through all mental health issues, recognizing your feelings and sharing them when the time is right, will change your life.

"It's really important to recognize seasonal affective disorder and realize there is help in Cuyahoga and Cleveland, and the third thing is to know that you're not alone," Dr. Koblentz reminds people. 

Boyd says the same.

"This is hard, and it's OKto see that its hard and to recognize and realize, I am not OK."

For help dealing with SAD, or any other mental health issue, you can contact the ADAMHS Board of Cuyahoga County here.

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