Pandemic compounds managing the winter blues

By Cheri Burcham University of Illinois Extension Services

There are many ways to try and prevent those winter blues from sneaking up on us and to maintain positive mental health. (Photo courtesy of University of Illinois Extension)

Winter is upon us and those longer hours of darkness coupled with the colder temperatures can make many people experience those “winter blues.” Throw in a pandemic where we are isolating from others, and I’m afraid we are going to see more people experiencing those blues and maybe worse this season.

I have become much more aware recently of the signs of mental health issues having just completed Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) and Trauma-Informed Care trainings, and also co-facilitating a youth mental health awareness program called Your Thoughts Matter.

I would highly recommend anyone to complete MHFA as the purpose is to help you recognize when someone is having difficulties and be able to respond in a helpful way.

And it is very likely that you will need to be there for someone in that circumstance since according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, one in four American adults is diagnosed with a mental disorder in their lifetime and half of those disorders begin by age 14 and three quarters by age 24.

There are many ways to try and prevent those winter blues from sneaking up on us and to maintain positive mental health. Here are just a few tips to get started:

  • Do your best to get outside despite the cold. Studies show that certain scents within nature, such as jasmine, pine and lilacs have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. Also getting your Vitamin D by soaking in some sun along with breathing in phytoncides (airborne chemicals that plants give off to protect themselves) maintains a healthy and strong immune system. More energy and improved focus have also been proven to be results of spending time outside.
  • Spend some time with a friend. Whether in person (following COVID-19 precautions), phone, or video chat — being able to continue to socialize and to confide in someone you trust is essential for everyone’s mental health and well-being.
  • Volunteer. Giving back to others can boost your mood and satisfaction and may also provide a needed distraction from your own thoughts. Delivering meals or sending thoughtful cards to the homebound, checking in on and maybe running errands for older neighbors and donating needed items to food pantries, shelters and schools are just a few ideas to help others in your community.
  • Be kind to yourself and do something you enjoy. Maybe that is reading, watching a favorite show, engaging in an activity like puzzles or crafts — whatever brings you joy when you are involved in it. This may also include a little pampering/relaxation like getting a massage, a yoga session, or meditation.
  • Take care of yourself physically. Continue to get exercise, stay hydrated, try to eat healthy and manage any health conditions by following your provider’s instructions.
  • Plan something you can look forward to. I find that it is helpful to always have something on the calendar that I look forward to. That may be lunch with a friend, a special event to attend, a movie or show I’ve been wanting to watch – it can be anything big or small – but something that you anticipate doing.
  • Try to enjoy the present moment. This is about not thinking or dwelling on something you should have done in the past or worrying about what might happen tomorrow. It can be very freeing and rewarding to focus on what is happening in the present moment as you live it. This is called mindfulness and research has shown the many physical and mental benefits it has for us.

It’s normal to have some days when you feel down. But if you feel down for days at a time and you can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, you may have what is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and should consult with your healthcare provider.

This is especially important if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed, you turn to alcohol for comfort or relaxation, or you feel hopeless or think about suicide.

Your provider may prescribe medications, light therapy, and psychotherapy to help treat SAD. There are also helplines you can call like SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1–800–662–HELP (1–800–662–4357) or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) for assistance.

Cheri Burcham, family life educator at University of Illinois Extension