A Professional's Perspective: Tending to Your Mental Health During the Winter Months
Emily Pagone is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC), National Certified Counselor (NCC), and is currently completing advanced training and certification in Perinatal Mental Health (PMH-C, pending). She practices in the Chicago area.
As if this past year hasn't been tough already, we are now well-into the blustery, chilly wintry months that envelope most of the country. But, no matter where you live, the winter months are challenging and drag on.
While reflecting on the past year, a lot of us feel saddened, traumatized, grief-stricken and numb, among many other emotions. For some it may feel like a stretch to be grateful for making it this far, and others may feel very thankful to have made it after so much heartache, collective trauma (COVID-19, political, & racial and civil unrest), and personal unexpected changes.
Now, more than ever, is the time to create a coping strategy to motivate you through the winter months, to energize you toward the goals of combating potential (or current) depressive and anxiety-related symptoms and to continue to cope through the pandemic while remaining safe and preserving your mental health.
So, let’s create an updated coping plan to help you and your loved ones work through these tedious and tiring winter months.
There are four interventions that I believe everyone should implement this winter:
1) getting outdoors routinely/ moving your body;
2) utilizing a light therapy lamp;
3) touching base with your doctor to see if there are any vitamins/supplements you should be taking during these winter months; and/or
4) explore working with a mental health professional.
Winter Blues vs. Seasonal Affective Disorder:
The emotional changes associated with the winter/colder months have been referred to as the “winter blues” and also a psychological term and phenomenon called “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)”. SAD interferes with one’s daily functioning, and the mood changes are more serious. SAD is characterized by fall/winter major depression with spring/summer remission, and it is a valid mental health issue which many experience. SAD is attributed to seasonal light variation, and is comprised of depressive episodes that recur and remit annually in certain seasons. Less sunlight during these colder months affect our melatonin and serotonin levels and lead to depressive symptoms.
More specifically, symptoms of winter-SAD include:
Disturbances in your sleep;
Loss of interest;
Decreased activity; feeling sluggish or agitated; having low energy
Increased appetite (appetite changes)
Social withdrawal (made worse by COVID19 & distancing)
Some experience hopelessness and worthlessness; and sometimes suicidal ideations.
If you experience these emotional changes, you are not alone in this experience; these emotions have been definitely compromised and impacted by the pandemic and events of the past year. If you feel you are experiencing winter blues and/or SAD, please reach out to a mental health professional – this deserves time, attention, and focus to help you improve your symptoms and live your best life.
After making a self-assessment regarding where you are with the winter blues, please consider the following ideas to integrate into your winter season daily routine: frequent outdoor activity, obtaining a light therapy lamp, touch base with your doctor, reach out to a mental health professional.
Routine: Include Frequent (COVID-19 Safe) Outdoor Activity
Throughout the pandemic, experts and professionals have been encouraging everyone to create a daily routine to help get through the day and chip away at goals. With the already-established routine you may have, I encourage you to go outdoors frequently and find a COVID-19 safe version of social activities. It is so important to bundle up and go outside, even if it’s chilly and cloudy.
Getting outside is critical during these cold months; we all need to soak up whatever sunshine is available to us even if it is cold! Invest in some warm clothing and snow pants, and get out there for a walk maybe with a warm coffee in hand, and a podcast in your ears. The key for a routine to be effective and work well is consistency! This is considered to be behavioral activation, which is a helpful strategy that will help fight off and reduce depressive symptoms.
Light Therapy Lamp:
Implementing Light Therapy is an important intervention if you feel you are experiencing the blues and symptoms of depression related to the winter months. The purpose of the light is to expose people to a bright light every day to make up for the diminished natural sunshine that occurs during the darker winter months, and helps to correct circadian rhythm (Meyerhoff, et. al., 2018).
Here’s how it works: a person sits in front of a bright light box every day for about 30-45 minutes, and often this is recommended to do first thing in the morning. I recommend people to use this while they are doing something else; such as while they do work, or next to them while they read a book/or do anything else. There are a bunch of light therapy lamps available on Amazon that have dimmers, so you are able to adjust it to your desired level of brightness. The Meyerhoff et. al. (2018) study used SunRay ® by Sun-Box Company, Gaithersburg,MD.
Touch Base with Your Doctor:
During these dark, chilly months, it is important to touch base with your doctor. There are often many physiological changes that occur that are closely associated with emotional/behavioral shifts, such as low vitamin D, which is why it is required to get outdoors and obtain a light therapy lamp. When it comes to understanding specific vitamins and supplements to take, it is important to see your doctor and maybe do a blood lab to look out for any potential deficiencies. Your doctor will be able to inform and guide you on what vitamins/supplements and dosages you could take to help improve any potential deficiencies, towards the goal of feeling better.
Whenever there are mood changes, and symptoms such as the ones listed above, it is recommended to see your doctor to assess for potential deficiencies, get your thyroid checked, and possibly hormone levels checked – mental health professionals are trained to make these recommendations to anyone experiencing mood shifts and changes. The body and mind are inextricably connected.
Seek Out Help: Reach Out To A Mental Health Professional
If you need assistance finding a mental health provider in your area in-network with your insurance, I recommend starting off by calling the number on the back of your insurance card and asking for a referral for “outpatient behavioral health” or “outpatient mental health counseling.” Otherwise, you can definitely find good referrals from other health providers in your life such as your doctor. If it is difficult to get referrals, you can look into online directories such as www.PsychologyToday.com or www.GoodTherapy.org and filter your search by zip code, symptomatology, and other specifications to find a provider that would be of best fit.
We are all experiencing varying levels of struggle and difficulty during these winter months. Please find a way to check-in with yourself, and assess to see if you are able to integrate any of these ideas into your life to help bring some relief and symptom-reduction during these tough months. Life is already chaotic and stressful as it is; do not forget to take care of yourself as well.
*If you or someone you know is in immediate distress or is thinking about hurting themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the toll-free TTY number at 1-800-799-4TTY (4889). You also can text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741) or go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.*
Emily Pagone is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC), National Certified Counselor (NCC), and is currently completing advanced training and certification in Perinatal Mental Health (PMH-C, pending). She obtained her Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from Benedictine University and undergraduate Psychology degree at the University of Kansas. She has been providing counseling to individuals, couples, families, parents, and children/adolescents/teens for nearly 8 years. She also serves as an adjunct psychology instructor at Benedictine University, and staff counselor at The Well Resource Center, a non-for-profit, in Chicago. She recently began her private practice. You can find her at https://www.emilypagonelcpc.com and on Instagram and Facebook.
References and Resources:
Light therapy lamp: https://amzn.to/2XSdDWk (Commission Link)
The SunBox Company: https://www.sunbox.com/
Meyerhoff, J., Young, M.A., Rohan, K.J. (2018). Patterns of depressive symptom remission during the treatment of seasonal affective disorder with cognitive-behavioral therapy or light therapy. Depress Anxiety, 2018; 35: 457-467. Wiley Periodicals (2018). https://doi.org/10.1002/da.22739.