A Hazy Shade of Winter

How To Fine-Tune the Moody Blues
By Maka Boeve

Fall, with its crisp air, spiced lattes and blazes of color, heralds the start of a magical season for some. For others, it is the beginning of long, noisy, weary, tension-filled times. 

Anxiety, depression and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness are common during this time of year. On top of that, increasingly commercialized holidays cause pressure for many to try to achieve unrealistic expectations. Perfect gifts must be purchased. Family drama must be extinguished. Gourmet meals must be prepared. Elaborate decorations must be displayed. Social obligations must be met. Somewhere during the hustle and bustle, the wonderment gets lost. 

“I hated the holidays,” Danielle, a 57-year-old professional, confesses. “When the weather started to get cold, I felt an impending gloom coming on.”

“Static” was the best way to describe the lack of emotion and the loss of interest in fun activities. For close to 30 years, Danielle struggled during the winter. She realized that she “could not be unproductive for half the year,” so she sought professional help to integrate coping strategies into her lifestyle.

Dr. Amanda Ward is a licensed clinical psychologist at Olmsted Medical Center. “Some people do experience more ‘blue’ or sad moods in winter—generally this is not abnormal and doesn’t necessarily mean that they have depression,” she says. “But, if they find their sad or depressed emotions last most of the day for more than two weeks, and they are finding it hard to take care of or engage in the key areas of their life, like their physical health, work or relationships, it might be time to seek some help.” Untreated depression can lead to serious health complications.

Proximity to the equator seems to play a significant role in a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Primarily starting in autumn and lasting through winter, it’s estimated that seasonal depression occurs in 23 million people yearly—that’s 7% of the United States population. SAD generally seems to affect women and tends to get better with age.

Michaela, a 32-year-old mother, was recently diagnosed with SAD. She says she struggled for many winters with getting up in the morning, functioning at work and juggling general life responsibilities. “This year it seems to be the social norm to hang out in pajamas,” Michaela laughs, “but I’m getting dressed. Treatment is helping, and I am learning to be positive and kind to myself.”

Finland is ranked the happiest country in the world for the third year in a row according to the United Nations’ latest “World Happiness Report.” One factor is that their citizens embrace winter. They participate in various outdoor sports and events that celebrate the change of seasons.
Danielle tries to go outside daily year-round. She emphasizes, “I need to get fresh air every day to feel alive, and sometimes that means being in nature at its worst.”

This global pandemic has been one of the darkest and gloomiest times in recent history. Loneliness and isolation, especially in the high-risk and elderly population, have led to a plethora of mental health issues. Suicide rates are rising. Alcohol and drug usage are escalating. Unemployment, financial strain and hunger are harsh realities. Every day the news seems bleak.

Before going into a dark hole, know there is always someone to talk to and somewhere to get help. Community resources include teachers, spiritual leaders, health care providers and life coaches. Equally critical is for everyone to reach out and comfort others, practice tolerance and find humanity again. 

“In addition to some of the standard treatment approaches for major depression, bright light (phototherapy) has been the most researched intervention,” says Dr. Ward. “Light therapy is generally thought to be one of the best treatments for seasonal depression. Increasing physical activity to include exercise and decreasing the time spent asleep, for those oversleeping, are also nonmedication treatments which show beneficial effects. Generally, those who are treated by a qualified professional with a multimodal approach such as medication, exercise, sleep restriction and cognitive behavioral therapy tend to recover and have longer periods of symptom remission than those who do not.”

Some additional strategies for coping with SAD include: 

• establishing a schedule to practice self-care
• checking vitamin D levels
• managing stress with yoga, meditation or exercise
• getting into a routine, especially when working from home
• planning ahead for fun winter projects, special movies or interesting books
• disconnecting from the constant news stream
• maintaining connections with family and friends 

A quick note on social media. It’s a great tool for staying in touch, especially in a time of social distancing, but generally it’s not the full story. Use caution when engaging with social media.

The year 2020 has delivered challenge after challenge for many. These hardships have also provided opportunities for much insight. One unique phenomenon of the COVID-19 crisis is that there seems to be a return to simpler times. People are forced to slow down and rethink their lives. There also seems to be a shift in prioritizing what is important.

Michaela demonstrates people can find joy by adjusting their mindset. She and her daughter put together a playlist of happy, upbeat songs. Whenever it is blustery outside, they start rocking out. She shares, “We are horribly out of tune, but that’s fine with us.”

Editors note: read more from the CDC here.