Early in winter, you may have found the idea of staying in on a cold, snowy night with a mug of hot chocolate magical and relaxing. Now, as winter drags on, cold weather, short days, and the confines of your home may feel a little less appealing - and a lot more distressing.
Feeling down in the dumps in the winter months is often referred to as the "winter blues." When occasional sadness turns into depression and interferes with your daily functioning, it's called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
During any winter, feelings of sadness and depression throughout the winter months can take a toll on your quality of life. This year, with the additional challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the season might be a little more difficult.
Taking steps to improve your mental health is key year-round, but this winter during the pandemic, it may be even more crucial.
Winter Blues Vs. Seasonal Affective Disorder
From planning virtual gatherings to financial woes to the reminder of absent loved ones, there is plenty of stress that comes during and after the holiday season - especially during a pandemic. Add in cold weather and shortened days, and it's easy to see why experiencing the "winter blues" is common.
While certainly challenging, the winter blues is not a medical diagnosis. It's typically milder, and it should pass in a short amount of time.
Seasonal affective disorder, on the other hand, is more serious. Shorter hours of daylight and less sunlight can disrupt your body's internal clock (or sleep-wake cycle) and the production of a mood-regulating chemical called serotonin. This can lead to feelings that are both distressing and overwhelming, and it can limit your ability to complete daily tasks
Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are similar to those of major depression, including:
- Feeling depressed for the majority of the day on most days
- Losing interest in activities you normally enjoy
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Difficulty sleeping
- Low energy levels
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
SAD symptoms that are specific to winter include:
- Weight gain
- Social withdrawal
How Do I Manage My Mental Health, Especially During a Pandemic?
Both the winter blues and seasonal affective disorder can severely impact your quality of life. As we enter a winter in the midst of a pandemic, it's important to take special care of your mental health.
Ways to manage your mental health include:
- Get outside: Take advantage of those sunny days, and soak in as much natural sunlight as you can. Whether you take a socially-distanced walk or bring a hot cup of coffee to your backyard, the sun can do wonders for your mood.
- Stay active: Exercise boosts feel-good chemicals like serotonin and endorphins, and it can improve your sleep and self-esteem. Aim for at least 30 minutes of activity a day, and don't forget that something as simple as walking the dog counts as exercise.
- Stay connected: Physical distancing is critical to limit the spread of COVID-19, but that doesn't mean you have to stay socially isolated. Connect with your friends and family on video chat, enroll in an online class, or join a virtual support group. Don't forget about sending good old fashioned snail mail, too.
- Do what you love: Push yourself to stay engaged with the things you love. From painting to playing an instrument to gardening to reading, keep doing the things you enjoy -you may be surprised at how much pleasure they still bring.
If you're still struggling to improve your mental well-being, talk to your healthcare provider. You may have seasonal affective disorder, and there are treatment options, such as:
- Light therapy, which exposes you to bright light each day to make up for lost sunshine
- Psychotherapy, which is a type of talk therapy intended to help you cope with challenging situations
- Antidepressant medications, which help combat feelings of depression
- Vitamin D, which may replace vitamin D deficiencies that are common during winter and improve symptoms
Putting Your Mental Health First - This Winter and Always
No matter what season it is, your mental well-being is just as crucial as your physical well-being. Strong mental health allows you to manage stress, accomplish your goals, build relationships, and achieve your full potential in life.
If you're struggling to manage your mental health, remember that you're not alone. Whether you reach out to your loved ones, your healthcare provider, or a mental health expert, there are plenty of people ready and willing to support you.
If you are ever in immediate stress and considering harming yourself, get help immediately. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or text the Crisis Text Line by sending "Hello" to 741741.
Today, tomorrow, and the rest of your life, be purposeful about caring for your mental health. It's up to you to build the life you deserve - and you deserve one full of happiness, peace, and a healthy state of mind.
Do you have questions about managing your mental health during the winter months? Call 610-431-5000 to talk to a healthcare provider at Chester County Hospital.
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