Ways to keep mentally healthy this winter



For some of us, the holidays are wonderful because it is a time that we enjoy traditions with family and friends and create new memories. For others, it is difficult because of painful memories of past holidays or because of being over-stressed from trying to create the “perfect” holiday. And, still for others it is a time of loneliness.

This year, due to the recommendations that people not travel and that people only socialize with those they have been living with, there will be a need to develop new family traditions. Many are craving contact with family and friends, and some have simply decided to ignore the CDC recommendations which unfortunately has resulted in increasing numbers of people diagnosed with COVID-19.

Seasonal depression may be worse this winter

A mental health concern that is more frequently observed during the fall and winter months, is Major Depressive Disorder with seasonal pattern which was formerly known as SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder. The American Psychiatric Association reports that this type of depression is more than the “winter blues” and can be distressing, overwhelming and result in impaired daily functioning. According to the American Psychological Association, some of the distressing symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Sad or depressed mood
  • Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
  • Sleep problems, typically an increase in sleep
  • Craving/eating more carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Suicidal ideation

Obviously, these symptoms are of concern and people who exhibit them are diagnosed after they exhibit them consistently during a season for two years in a row. Treatments for this type of depression include light therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and medication. However, there are activities that may help prevent people from getting to the point of impaired daily functioning which will be discussed below.

This trio of concerns—pandemic restrictions, holiday blues and seasonal depression—can be overwhelming but there are some things people can do to lessen their impact and it turns out that these self-care tips tend to be helpful for all of us. There are also some additional specific things people can do to lessen some of the impact of all these stressors which will also be offered. More general stress-reducing tips include:

  • Eating healthy—this generally means eating lots of healthy fruits and vegetables
  • Getting adequate sleep but not too much
  • Setting up a routine and doing your best to stick to it
  • Exercising
  • Socializing with supportive friends and family
  • Staying connected virtually, but limiting screen time when possible
  • Keeping up with routine medical care or getting medical care when needed
  • Speaking up for yourself or others
  • Being compassionate toward yourself and others
  • Participating in some sort of mindfulness/meditation or at least finding time to just sit and do nothing
  • Having fun

A word about screen time

It’s important to maintain your social contact. Many adults are also finding it necessary to use screen time to assist their children with schoolwork or even their own schoolwork. Screens have additionally become essential for some workers who have the privilege of working from home. But it is important to limit screen time as much as possible. It has been found that even moderate screen time can have a negative impact on mental health including, sleep disturbances, weight gain and an increased “need” to be on screens. Watching too much news about the pandemic or any other crisis, can become overwhelming so get the information you need to stay safe and turn it off. Unplug when you can.

Get help if needed

Many people experience holiday stress so if you have a history of negative memories, you can create new more positive memories or work through your concerns. This may involve seeking mental health treatment. Regardless, it is important to stay connected to people who truly support you.

If symptoms of seasonal depression become too overwhelming to manage, seek treatment from a mental health professional who specializes in treating people who meet the criteria of this disorder. The lack of exposure to the sun is one of the reason people may become depressed during the fall and winter so light therapy has been found to be quite helpful. It is important to work with a mental health professional trained in this type of therapy so they can give you the appropriate recommendations. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a common treatment for people who are diagnosed with depression. Light therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are also frequently combined to treat those who suffer with the symptoms of seasonal depression.

If at any point you or someone you know begins contemplating suicide, it is crucial that you or they seek treatment immediately. You can call your insurance company for a referral, talk with your physician or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. If you or they would prefer to contact your local community mental health center, check this list. If someone you know has a suicide plan, you need to seek treatment as soon as possible and you can go to the nearest emergency room.

It is important that people know that there are things we can do to feel better and if those practices are not working, there are professionals who can assist us in feeling better. We can safely seek mental health services since many agencies are providing telehealth services.

By Dr. Nancy Osborn, psychologist/trainer

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