Be proactive—and prioritize mental wellness—during this challenging time.

By Blythe Copeland
December 17, 2020

Seasonal mood changes—a form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder—can make winter the hardest time of the year for many people—and that's even without a global pandemic. "There is a history of global events impacting overall well-being and mental health of people," says Dr. Krystal Lewis of the National Institute of Mental Health. Reported psychological effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, she says, have included "traumatic stress symptoms, as well as anxiety, stress, depression, and irritability." Add in shorter days and colder weather—which could limit opportunities for socializing outdoors, hitting your target vitamin D levels, and exercising—and this year's mood changes may be even more intense. "Extended periods of time spent indoors and away from people can certainly impact one's experience of positive feelings," she adds. "The winter months often bring about changes in mood and, although the holidays bring joy and fun times for many, some people are more susceptible to feelings of isolation, loneliness, and sadness."

woman looking out window during winter
Credit: Getty / Photographer, Basak Gurbuz Derman

If you've experienced seasonal affective disorder in the past (and even if you haven't), Dr. Lewis suggests protecting your mental health with several simple steps. "There are specific strategies that people can engage in to help with SAD and the mental health effects due to COVID-19," she says. "It is important that individuals with SAD take preventative measures to help keep their moods elevated and have a plan of action for the difficult times."

Before Winter: Invest in a Sun Lamp or Light Box

Direct sunlight is a reliable way to soak up vitamin D, which can brighten your mood, but it's not always easy to come by—especially if outdoor venues in your city are closed this year. "It can be hard to receive enough light during the winter months due to the weather, decreased sun, and less time spent outside," says Dr. Lewis, "therefore an artificial light source can help."

Before Winter: Practice Balancing Your Emotions

"Have a prepared 'emotion regulation toolbox' to refer to when you need ideas for ways to manage feelings of anger, anxiety, or general feelings of stress," notes Dr. Lewis. Include activities such as deep breathing, mindful meditation, a favorite creative pursuit—like coloring or journaling—and mood-boosting physical activity, whether it's going for a walk or turning on a happy song and dancing with the kids. "These activities help to slow down the emotional reactions and can help achieve a more balanced mood," she says.

Before Winter: Fill a Jar with Activity Cards

Make individual cards listing tasks that require varying degrees of effort—send a friend a handwritten note; bake your grandmother's famous gingersnaps; read a magazine; call your college roommate. "When feeling down it can be hard to be creative and feel motivated to do much of anything," says Dr. Lewis. "Whenever you're feeling sad and unmotivated, you can pull an activity out of the jar to do."

Before Winter: Connect with Your Community

A strong, supportive community can be one of your most important mental health resources. "This includes family and friends that you can turn to when feeling down, but it also includes support groups," adds Dr. Lewis. "These can be groups of people who experience similar symptoms and also groups of like-minded people who share common positive interests."

During Winter: Stay Active

When SAD hits, prioritizing your physical health with exercise, sleep, and a healthy diet is key, says Dr. Lewis. "Physical activity will help combat feeling lethargic and having low energy," she says. "Maintain a good sleep schedule and maintain your nutrition—poor sleep may lead to a weaker immune system and increased risk of illness, which can make it hard to get things done and feel productive. This, in turn, may lead to increased feelings of frustration and sadness." It's also important to connect with people every day, both by talking to your family, friends, and neighbors, and by interacting with your larger community. "Engaging in community service and volunteer activities can improve psychological well-being and can help provide a sense of meaning," explains Dr. Lewis. She also recommends keeping a daily gratitude journal. "Be intentional with your attention and find things that you appreciate throughout the day. When you journal or keep track of these things, it helps to train your brain to attend to the positive things that occur each day and remind you of the many blessings that you have, however small they are."


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