Seasonal Affective Disorders: How to Fight It With Breathing Exercise

Breathing exercises as a treatment for seasonal affective disorders

Here’s how to deal with the seasonal mental health exacerbation

Long nights, dark days, and chilling temperatures: to quite a few of us, winter comes with major challenges for our mental health. For an estimated five percent of adults in the United States, e.g., the mood changes that occur as the amount of natural sunlight decreases are severe enough to be diagnosed as seasonal affective disorders. And the COVID-19 pandemic has been adding its toll during the previous cold season and the current one in the northern hemisphere: authors of a study published in the Lancet note an increase of more than 129 million cases world-wide of major depression and anxiety disorders compared with pre-pandemic figures. They attribute this to the “combined effects of the spread of the virus, lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, decreased public transport, school and business closures, and decreased social interactions, among other factors.” However, there are effective methods to increase mental health resilience.

Researchers describe seasonal affective disorders (SAD) as a “recurrent major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern, usually beginning in fall (autumn) and continuing into winter months”. SAD disrupt the body’s internal clock and produce chemical changes in the brain; a sad mood and low energy are key symptoms of the condition. Risk groups include females, and are younger; they live “far from the equator”, and have family histories of depression, bipolar disorder, or SAD. Screening instruments include the Seasonal Pattern Assessment Questionnaire (SPAQ).

Some experts differentiate S-SAD, commonly seen as a subcategory and termed the “winter blues”, from “genuine SAD”. They claim SAD patients need to have experienced symptoms – such as feeling constantly tired, spending longer times in bed, increased appetite, lack of motivation, and disturbed sleep – consecutively for two years. Isabella Lovett counts among the proponents who state that the value of exercise in combating any form of stress, anxiety or depression – including SAD – is beyond doubt. Intense cardio and strength classes should be combined with mindfulness-based exercises and activities such as yoga and meditation.

According to researchers from Carnegie Mellon, for example, just 25 minutes of mindfulness meditation can significantly alleviate stress. For a study, 66 healthy individuals aged 18-30 years participated in a three-day experiment. Some participants went through a brief mindfulness meditation training program; for 25 minutes for three consecutive days, the individuals were given breathing exercises to help them monitor their breath and pay attention to their experiences. A second group completed a matched three-day cognitive training program. As a result, the first group reported reduced stress perceptions of speech and math tasks both groups were given to do, indicating that the mindfulness meditation fostered psychological stress resilience. More interestingly, on the biological side, the mindfulness meditation participants showed greater cortisol reactivity which, researchers assume, may be reduced over longer-term activities. In another example, Adam Borland, PsyD, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, suggests taking ten minutes every morning for deep breathing and stretching to counter SAD.

Experts predict that during this northern winter, with COVID-19 continuing to upend our lives, SAD may become even more prevalent. Persons affected should seek counseling; to monitor effects of therapy, and for self-management in the context of building resilience, modern technology comes into play.

Patients can use their smartphones for measuring heart rate variability (HRV). As an important measure of health and wellbeing, HRV is significantly impacted by mood and mental health, and is increasingly being used as a measure of outcome in psychotherapy studies. To combine this biofeedback data with, e.g. breathing exercises provides a simple and cost-effective way to take control of body functions.

The battle against SAD is on. Let’s reduce the burden on our mental health with breathing exercises, managed through biofeedback.