Whether it’s the colder/darker months, a bit of the post-holiday blues, a new variant of COVID-19 upon us (or honestly a little bit of all of the above), it’s understandable if your mood, energy and motivation levels are taking a hit right now. With so much uncertainty ahead and not much (literal) light at the end of the tunnel, you are not alone in how you’re feeling – and you don’t have to get through it on your own either.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to overcoming these hard seasons, below are 7 research-backed ways to help manage the mental/emotional shifts that may arise during this time of year and a few tools that clients are finding useful to navigate challenges related to the pandemic. Whether you have mild or severe seasonal depression or are just struggling right now in particular – each of these things can still make a positive impact on your well-being.
- Maintain a Self-Care Routine – Our days throughout the winter months, especially if we are working from home, can start to feel monotonous and all begin to blend together. Furthermore, our work life bleeds into our home life making both feel deeply engrained and ultimately exhausting. We can challenge this by adding even a small block of structured, non-negotiable time for ourselves at the beginning and end of each day to transition into/out of work. Schedule a block of 30-60 minutes of time for yourself to engage in whatever self-care activities you need most on that particular day. Be flexible with what you do during this time, but make it a non-negotiable appointment. Ideas – stretching, a guided meditation, a walk around the block, reading, listening a podcast, writing affirmations, journaling, a written re-cap or check-in of your day, a gratitude practice, etc. (Check out the book Atomic Habits by James Clear for tips on ways to make your routine habitual if you have trouble sticking with things).
- Stay Socially Connected – Many of us already have a tendency to isolate and “hibernate” in the winter months and it doesn’t help that we are now, in some ways, being forced to in order to avoid contracting COVID-19. However this isolation can exacerbate the mental & emotional struggles many of us already face during this period. Additionally, the more we isolate, the more difficult it becomes to re-connect with others again in the future, creating a feedback loop that can be challenging to break. If you know you’re prone to isolate in the winter, get some systems in place to stay socially connected – even if it’s just virtually (though I know we’re all feeling the Zoom fatigue!). Identify socialization that feels realistic, safe and comfortable to you and create a schedule around it. When we schedule things, we are more likely to be accountable. Ideas – plan a local trip, schedule weekly phone/video chats with friends or family, join a book club, make a weekly ‘to text/check-in with’ list, volunteer, plan virtual or in-person movie nights, take an online class with a friend, etc.
- Choose a New, Indoor Hobby – While socialization is important, it can be equally important to embrace spending time by ourselves – particularly if doing so leads to discomfort, heightened anxiety or negative thoughts. One way to change our association with spending time alone is by embracing a new hobby that feels fun, expressive, interesting or fulfilling. Is there a skill you’ve been wanting to practice? An activity you’ve been wanting to try? With more time indoors ahead, there’s no better time to get started. Hobbies are great for providing a sense of purpose and accomplishment outside of your regular routine, so this is a good strategy to implement especially if you are not feeling entirely fulfilled in other areas of your life right now (work, relationships, etc.). They can also be a productive way to channel stress and anxiety and are known to positively impact our mood. Ideas – cooking, baking, knitting, learning a language, photography, coding, writing, learning how to play an instrument, volunteering, starting a blog, starting a small business, etc.
- Make Plans for Warmer Months – While we can’t change the fact that it’s colder/darker and while it’s harder than ever to make plans because of the uncertainty and unpredictability of the pandemic, we can start making (loose, flexible) plans for & visualizing warmer-weather months, which can help us to cope. Start by making a bucket list of things you want to do once it’s warmer or even consider making a vision board to hang somewhere in your space. Think about local things that you’ll probably be able to do regardless of the state of the pandemic along with your dream list of things you want to do if there are no restrictions. While it won’t change the season or the circumstances, having a future you’re excited about will make the process of getting there feel less dreadful & will help you remember that this season is just a temporary one (even if it doesn’t feel like it sometimes). Ideas – plan some local trips/getaways, make a list of places/activities in your area you want to visit/do, cut out photos from magazines and hang them around your house, set your screen savers to future/warmer destinations, create a cozy space in your home that makes you forget it’s dark or cold outside.
- Use a Light Box or Supplements – While everyone’s body is different and there is no one-size-fits-all guarantee for what will/won’t be helpful to each person, there is a lot of research to support that light box therapy, vitamin D supplements and CBD are helpful for combating the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Additionally, antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications can often be useful during this period, even in low doses or taken as needed (and only if recommended by a doctor). The thought here is to replace the boost of serotonin (the “happy hormone”) that our brains usually releases in response to exposure to sunlight with other modalities found to stimulate the same hormone. Always consult with your doctor first, but sometimes our mood/energy levels are a result of a physiological or hormonal imbalance that cannot be treated solely through mental exercises or activities. Ideas – do some research about the impact of sunlight on our mood and talk to a psychiatrist or doctor if you think you could benefit from medication; you can also purchase light therapy boxes, vitamin D or CBD over-the-counter or online (just make sure you educate yourself about them first)
- Get Outdoors When Possible – While there are added challenges to getting outside during the winter, as well as during a pandemic, it’s still encouraged to do so whenever possible so that our bodies can get access to sunlight, natural vitamin D, which increases our brain’s release of serotonin and ultimately makes us happier. Even a short amount of time outside or sitting near a window with natural light can have a positive impact on our mood. The challenge with this catch 22 is that we need sunlight to improve our mood/energy levels and we sometimes need improved mood/energy levels to get ourselves outdoors, so it can be helpful to create a structured, automatic habit of getting outside once per day and/or to have someone else to hold you accountable. Ideas – take a short walk around your neighborhood or each morning, take a walk around the block every few hours, step outside and breath in fresh air, open the windows for a bit, set up your work space near a window with natural light, play in the snow, take advantage of unseasonably warm days, etc.
- Start Working With a Therapist – There is nothing wrong with leaning into supports during a period of time that has either historically been a challenge for you or that is presenting a ton of new ones you’ve never navigated before. Even if you are still functioning okay or aren’t experiencing severe symptoms, it can be helpful to learn coping skills and strategies to implement before things do get worse. Having a space that is 100% yours to sit with and talk about your challenges, feelings, thoughts, triggers, etc. (vs. numbing or suppressing them) with someone non-judgmental and objective can be incredibly refreshing. It doesn’t mean you can’t handle this period on your own (you obviously can!); it just means that you’re intelligent, self-aware and courageous enough to be able to use all of the available resources to you to your advantage. Ideas – while you can gladly book a session with one of our therapists, you can also filter by your zip code, insurance plan or issue on www.psychologytoday.com and www.helloalma.com to find therapists in your area with availability. Most therapists are offering online therapy so that you can have sessions from the comfort of your home or office, making it that much more accessible and flexible.
While some of these tips may provide immediate relief, some may take more time for you to notice the effects. Keep in mind that we are all different and that it may take some trial and error to figure out what works best for you. Finally, it’s okay to feel your feelings and to allow yourself to be disappointed, frustrated, discouraged and sad. These circumstances are hard ones – and sometimes forcing yourself to try and be happy in spite of them can end up making you feel worse. Practicing non-judgment and compassion with yourself is the most important tip of all in surviving this challenging season.