MENTAL HEALTH SPECIAL SECTION: A dreary combination: Steps to defeat the “winter blues” during a pandemic

“The winter blues are very common, with many of us experiencing a mood shift during the colder, darker days of winter,” reads an article published by Rush University Medical Center. “You may find yourself feeling more lethargic and down overall. Although you may feel more gloomy than usual, the winter blues typically don’t hinder your ability to enjoy life.”

For some people, however, these feelings may begin to affect all aspects of life.

For people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), the onset of colder, dreary months already can bring on feeling of depression, hopelessness, low energy, trouble sleeping difficulty concentrating and thoughts of suicide, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Many medical experts are predicting that the combination of the approaching winter and the pandemic could spell disaster for Americans’ mental health.

Vaile Wright, Ph.D., senior director of health care innovation for the American Psychological Association said in an article in TODAY magazine, “The cumulative effect, particularly for those prone to depression or seasonal affective disorder, is that they can start to feel hopeless. It feels like there’s no end in sight. There’s nothing but bad news all the time. It can be hard to maintain any sort of optimism.”

“Everyone should be thinking about these things. Even people who tend to fare well in winter might be stressed about politics or finances,” Jon Weingarden, Psy.D., senior program director at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Western Psychiatric Hospital said in the TODAY article. “People who don’t normally experience winter depression could have a harder time this year…”

This combination makes it all the more essential to let the public know about local options to seek help.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

According to an article published by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, “Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is type of depression. It happens during certain seasons of the year—most often fall or winter. It is thought that shorter days and less daylight may trigger a chemical change in the brain leading to symptoms of depression.”

What can I do?

There are several tips that people can implement to avoid the “winter blues”; however, it is also essential to recognize the symptoms of SAD and know when to seek help.

The aforementioned article from TODAY magazine recommended the following eight steps for beating the “winter blues:”

1. Bulk up your outdoor time in the fall

2. Spend time in sunlight

3. Maintain your routines

4. If you drink alcohol, keep it moderate

5. Talk to an expert about light therapy

6. Practice meditation or mindfulness

7. Get professional help

8. Connect with other people

“Everybody’s tools are going to have to change,” said Cicely Alvis, who is a Division Director at Frontier Health’s Turning Point in Johnson City. “Keeping a routine inside your house while you are indoors and being safe is key. Come up with a strategy and have structure. Getting up, making your bed, having balance and not just watching tv all day. Think about exercising inside your house and what that’s going to look like. Also, make sure you have the right kind of clothing so that you can spend time outside.”

Alvis noted that many gyms are open again and suggest visitors wear masks to ensure everyone can enjoy the gym safely.

“Strategies to be able to be outside AND inside safely are key,” she said.

She also explained that recent data shows that alcohol sales went “through the roof” during the first few months of the pandemic.

“Making good choices, eating healthy and trying to get some form of exercise is really important for people to stay mentally ‘sharp’,” she said.

If you or someone you know needs to seek professional help, check out the sidebar included in this issue with contact information for local mental health services.