How to Manage the Winter Blues This Year Amid Covid

Seasonal depression is more common than you might think. It affects as much as 3% of the general population. And people with a major depressive disorder are 20% more likely to suffer from seasonal depression, while also affecting up to 25% of those with bipolar disorder. 

“For some, this coming season may be accompanied by illness in the family,” says Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen, Ph.D. “Perhaps a family member is in the ICU with COVID-19, making the season heralded as ‘the most wonderful time of the year’ a worrisome winter and replacing merriment with misery.”

If you suffer from seasonal depression, don’t despair. There are ways to successfully navigate the holiday season without falling susceptible to this syndrome. Why is depression common in the winter months? Many stressors come with the holiday and winter season that can cause serious disruption to your regular moods and activity. 

Dr. Thiessen explains, “Excessive and prolonged stress produces an overabundance of the stress hormone, cortisol, which in turn, triggers the release of excessive levels of the neurotransmitter, glutamate. This attack on the brain, triggered by stress, further depletes levels of neurotransmitters, serotonin (the happy molecule) and dopamine (considered the motivation molecule).” 

“This could crush the most resilient of Christmas spirits,” Dr. Thiessen adds.

Many people suffer from seasonal depression, known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and many more are distraught from the relentless onslaught of COVID-19. These are a few of the common factors that influence and impact seasonal depression and SAD.

Social isolation

Even before COVID, people were lonely. A record-breaking number of nearly 20,000 people reported feeling some form of loneliness in 2018, and that was before coronavirus. With social distancing and quarantine commonplace, Americans are now, more than ever, craving the physical touch and companionship of our loved ones.

Holiday stress and anxiety

Unemployment is also up around the country, with Americans having less to spend this year. That can add stress and pressure during holiday shopping because many shoppers will find their purse stringers much tighter than they are used to. There’s also the added absence of loved ones. “With restrictions on hugs and kisses,” says Dr. Thiessen, “some may find family gatherings to be stark reminders of their own pandemic-induced touch deprivation.”

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Finally, there’s no ignoring seasonal affective disorder. Although possible in warmer months, SAD is more commonly attributed to fall and winter. Symptoms vary from person to person but may include any of these.

  • Frequent or daily depression
  • Little interest or feelings of agitation
  • Low energy or oversleeping
  • Insomnia and trouble sleeping
  • Weight gain or changes in appetite
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and guilt 
  • Suicidal thoughts 

“As a psychologist, I have already noticed a marked rise in cases involving depression and anxiety,” says Dr. Thiessen. “As the daylight hours shorten, I fully expect to observe a marked increase in SAD diagnoses.” 

While serious, these feelings do not have to be permanent. You can treat and defeat SAD so that you can once again find the happiest parts of the best time of the year. 

Coping with the social stress of the holidays

It can be tempting to snuggle in bed and block the world out, but much as you try, the holidays are still coming to town. Instead, try adopting some new techniques that can infuse a little more strength, stability and warmth into those difficult days. 

Reach out

The ideal solution is to spend time in the company of a loved one. The reinforcement of good feelings and happy chemicals in the brain can transform your holiday spirit as you are enveloped with the comfort of someone you love and trust. Despite social distancing, you can still use modern technology, like FaceTime and Zoom, to connect with your favorite companions.

Create new traditions

Treat the 2020 holiday season as an opportunity to make new memories and adopt new trends. If you normally see family, let family come to you on your computer or TV screen as you relax comfortably in your quiet, clean living room. Keep an eye on the positives and treat the holidays as an opportunity to indulge in the kind of celebrations you have always wanted to have.

Practice healthy habits

When it gets cold out, it’s easier to stay in and relax than force yourself out the door or to the gym. Don’t let cold weather and holiday pressure keep you from living a healthy lifestyle. 

“SAD is a light-deprivation disorder, and, with winter approaching, and more time spent indoors due to Covid-19 fears, sunlight deprivation is often accompanied by deficiencies in vitamin D,” says Dr. Thiessen. Be sure to exercise each day, whether it’s a jog around the neighborhood or a session on your Peloton, and match those habits with a healthy diet.

“Nutrition plays a big role in stress, anxiety, and depression,” says Jeanette Kimszal, RDN, NLC, of Root Nutrition Education & Counseling. “The body needs adequate levels of nutrients for neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.” 

Coping with financial stress during the holidays

Financial stress can significantly impact your mental health, but the combination of coronavirus and the holidays can feel like a perfect storm. These are some ways to avoid the financial stress of the season. 

Add it all up

Before you do anything, you must first figure out how much money you have. Add up all of your savings, as well as any additional income or financial windfall that can be appropriated for holiday spending. 

Create a budget  – and stick to it

Next, you want to take out all of your essential expenditures, such as housing, car payments, utilities and insurance. Subtract any debts or additional bills that you will need to pay. Now with what’s left, you can begin to build your holiday budget for each person on your shopping list. 

“Creating a budget this year is more crucial than ever, especially if you’ve lost a job or have struggled financially during the pandemic,” says Ben Reynolds, CEO and Founder of Sure Dividend. “You need to figure out how much you can afford to spend on holiday food, gifts, and other holiday expenses to prevent overspending, which can lead to you struggling to pay other essential bills.”

Make a plan to pay off your debt 

The crushing weight of looming debt can make it difficult to consider buying gifts for others, but you can help alleviate some of that stress by making a plan. The best gift you can give yourself this year is financial security, which includes working your way out of debt. While everyone’s exact circumstance is different, these are a few helpful ways to resolve your debt.

  • Pay more than the minimum due. 
  • Add a side hustle for extra income.
  • Sell what you don’t need.
  • Negotiate interest and other debts.
  • Use a personal loan for bad credit to eliminate mounting interest.

Seek professional guidance if needed

Sometimes, we can all use help. The stress of family combined with budgetary worries and shopping woes can make us feel overwhelmed, and it can be more difficult when you suffer from SAD. 

With current social distancing restrictions across the country, as well as the increase in telehealth services, you can get support and advice from a medical professional through online therapy platforms from the comfort of your home.  

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Ask the Experts

Dr. Nami Doshi

Therapist, Two Chairs Therapy

Carrie Krawiec

Marriage and family therapist , Birmingham Maple Clinic

Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen

Clinical psychologist , Licensed Clinical Psychologist

What are some tips that you would provide those experiencing social isolation during the pandemic?

People, especially extroverts, gain a lot of energy being around other people, which can make being holed up in your apartment or home draining. Getting outside and staying engaged in physical activities can increase energy levels and improve your mood. Physical activity produces positive emotions, which can help offset some of the fatigue extroverts may be experiencing being remote.”

What are the best ways to manage stress during the holiday season?

Try something new. Engaging in a new craft can be a great way for extroverts to feel challenged and energized/ Trying that DIY project you’ve been meaning to attempt, engaging in a creative art project, learning a captivating skill, or experimenting with various recipes can all be ways to produce the excitement that comes from engaging in new experiences.

How can a friend or loved one spot the signs of someone struggling with their mental health? How can they support them?

Connect virtually. Even though you may not be able to see friends, family or colleagues in-person right now or during the holidays, connecting with them virtually can be a helpful way to stay connected. Taking advantage of platforms to engage in virtual board games, karaoke, or even dance classes can be a great way to stay connected and make new memories together. During workdays, setting up virtual coffee hangs or team activities can also maintain feeling connected to colleagues throughout the week.

Lena Borrelli

Contributing Writer

Lena Borrelli is a Tampa-based freelance writer who has worked with leading industry titans, such as Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, and Simon Corporation. Her work has most recently been published on sites like TIME, ADT, Fiscal Tiger, Bankrate and Home Advisor, as well as many other websites and blogs around the world.