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  • Dr. Joe Novak

Prepare Now to Minimize the COVID Winter Blues

Updated: Oct 6

It is becoming that time of year for all of us in the Midwest and northern states. The days are getting shorter, the temperature is cooling down, and trees are beginning to shed their leaves. Soon we will turn our clocks back an hour. We all know this means winter is coming and, for some, so are the “winter blues.” For others, shorter daylight hours can trigger a condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The transition to fall and winter in 2020 is especially challenging as we endure more months living with the COVID-19 virus. For many of us, meeting up with friends and family outside has been our only means of socializing and we are worried about loneliness and isolation this winter.

The “winter blues” is often brought on by the shorter, colder days, and challenges posed by the holidays and missing those we love or have lost. Winter blues is not a medical diagnosis, is not serious, and most of us recover over a short period of time. Feelings of lethargy, low spirits, and lack of motivation during these dark, frigid days are common signs. The winter blues does not get in the way of normal life experiences.

In contrast, the American Psychiatric Association describes seasonal affective disorder (SAD) as a type of depression that has a cyclical pattern, often returning every fall and winter. SAD affects roughly five percent of adults in our country. The condition and its symptoms can range from mild to debilitating. It directly affects daily functioning and can last over several months. It is thought that SAD is connected to an imbalance in the biochemistry of our brain, as the body and mind face shorter days and diminished sunlight. Often people with SAD sleep too much and eat too much as they satisfy carbohydrate cravings. Other symptoms include markedly depressed mood, reduced energy or agitation, dark outlook about daily life, and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Many suffering from SAD lose interest in enjoyable activities and the desire to connect with friends and family. This year, these feelings may become more intense than usual.

Whether you suffer from seasonal affective disorder, the “winter blues,” or are worried about a lack of socialization this winter due to the pandemic, there are things you can do now to prepare. First, we all need to accept that this is going to be a radically different fall and winter than we have ever experienced. For the last six months we have confronted the stress of COVID in our daily lives, along with a cascade of disappointments. We can take action now that will make a positive difference later.

Here are some suggestions for how to prepare now for the coming shorter days and colder months:

  • Get ready now for fall and winter. Do an inventory of things you want to accomplish and follow through with a plan and action.

  • Be proactive now by focusing on self-care and wellness goals. Stay consistent and celebrate your success.

  • Find creative ways to maintain purpose, like working on a creative project you have not had time to do or volunteering for an organization whose cause is meaningful to you.

  • Stay connected with your social village. Challenge your friends and family with new ways to use platforms like Zoom to be spontaneous and have fun, especially during the holidays.

  • Get outside, while the weather is comfortable, to experience green space and visit with others in your life (while remaining safe and keeping a social distance). Consider buying a heater for your patio or backyard to extend the time you can comfortably socialize outdoors.

  • When the weather is not conducive to gathering outdoors, find creative ways to safely see family and friends. Meet up to shop for groceries, or run errands together, or take a masked and socially-distanced walk around your local mall.

  • Consider creating a “social bubble” with one or two other families or with grandparents or other relatives. Make sure you are all following similar pandemic precautions and continue to discuss what interactions are okay for those within your bubble and what are not.

  • Maintain a healthy sleep and wake routine, especially as your body starts to become confused with the shorter days. Don’t be fooled by the darkness. There still is plenty you can accomplish later in the day.

  • Be mindful of your diet and watch what you eat. Carbs feel good in the moment but there is a price to pay with reduced energy level and weight gain.

  • Talk to your physician about taking a vitamin D supplement and/or using UV light therapy.

  • If you have been diagnosed with SAD, make sure you stay in regular contact with your mental health practitioner throughout the fall and winter.

Remember, you do not have to accept that this fall and winter will be depressing. You need to recognize, however, what you can control and plan your life around these things. If you experience a mental health crisis, please seek help from a mental health professional.

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