My Turn: Mental health tips for the winter doldrums

  • Spring Point Ledge Light is surrounded by arctic sea smoke while emissions from the Wyman Power plant, background, are blown horizontal by the fierce wind, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023, in South Portland, Maine. The morning temperature was about -10 degrees Fahrenheit. AP PHOTO/ROBERT F. BUKATY

Published: 2/12/2023 4:58:46 PM
Modified: 2/12/2023 4:57:58 PM

The holidays are over and the long trudge to spring is here. For many, the gray skies, cold weather, and shorter days are a drag. For people with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses, winter can make their struggles even harder.

January and February are often considered the most depressing months. The bills have come in from the holidays, New Year’s resolutions may not be going well, and cold weather and short days can all contribute to melancholy. For those with mental illnesses, these factors can exacerbate their symptoms.

Always contact a health care provider if you are struggling with mental health. If you are in crisis, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or go to your nearest hospital.

If you are certain you are safe and not in crisis, here are some steps you can take to deal with stressors in winter.

Connect with supportive people. Isolation can contribute to the winter blues. If you have people who support you, make it a point to connect with them. Even a five minute phone call or video chat can make a big difference in how we feel. Call2Talk’s Tele-Check offers a check-in service for isolated older adults living at home. Call 211 to learn more.

Honor your needs. If you know that you get down in winter, make extra effort to do what makes you happier, whether it is taking time to meditate, curling up with a good book, or getting outside to walk or hike. In the cold, make sure to bundle up and be safe.

Stay on medications you have been prescribed/ask your doctor if medication is right for you. If you have been prescribed medications for mental health, do not go off them unless a doctor guides you to do so. If you’re feeling stressed talk with your healthcare provider about whether it makes sense to adjust or initiate medication. Never adjust your medication without speaking with your doctor first.

Set boundaries. Self-care is important. If social events tend to drain you, it is OK to say no. If work is proving overly taxing, speak to your boss about ways to manage your workload or take vacation time if you can.

Go somewhere sunny or bring the sun to you. If you have the means, go somewhere that enjoys more sun, such as Arizona, Florida, southern California, or Texas. Or you could bring the light to you with a special phototherapy lamp designed to mimic sunlight. Many health plans, like Health New England, cover phototherapy lamps in certain situations, or you may be able to pay for one with Health Savings Account or Health Reimbursement Account funds.

Exercise. Make sure you get enough exercise. Yoga, dancing, or even just going up and down the stairs are great examples of indoor exercise. Crank up the music and dance around and see how much better you feel in just five minutes. Or, if you prefer yoga, you can find great yoga classes free online, as well as in person. Whichever exercise works best for you, keep up with your routine or develop a new exercise habit.

Maintain your sleep patterns. Getting enough sleep has a huge effect on your mental health. The best practice is to go to sleep and wake up at roughly the same time every day, ensuring you get enough hours of sleep for you. Most people require between seven and ten hours of sleep per day. Turning off any screens an hour before bed will help you to sleep better at night.

Eat healthy foods. Concentrate on healthier, stress-busting, nutrient-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, lean meats, fatty fish, and eggs. If you need a chocolate fix, choose dark chocolate.

Minimize use of social media. Take timeouts from social media. You can leave your phone across the room, remove social media apps from your phone, and turn off alerts. And if the news stresses you, turn off news alerts and skip the news on TV, radio, or your smartphone.

Seasonal Affective Disorder: more than a case of the blues Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that usually occurs during winter months. SAD affects 5% of people, and another 20% get mild SAD symptoms, according to Cleveland Clinic. Symptoms of SAD are like those of depression but must occur at least two years in a row at the same time of year, usually winter, and depressive episodes must occur more often than during other times of year. If you feel like you may have SAD or other types of depression or are struggling with other brain illnesses, seek professional help. Along with counseling and medication, your health care professional may recommend bright light therapy. Some studies suggest that, when used correctly, special lamps can help ease SAD symptoms, though a 2019 review of published studies showed that much of the research was done with few people in the samples sizes, so more study was recommended. Still, the review concluded that bright light therapy can be an effective treatment for SAD and other types of depression. Contact your health care professional to learn if bright light therapy is right for you.

If you need help, ask for it. See your doctor if you are having trouble with your mental well-being. If you are in crisis, please call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or go to your nearest hospital.

Dr. Kate McIntosh is the Chief Medical Officer for Health New England. She enjoys walking and hiking, dancing, and knitting.


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