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Crying the winter blues: Dealing with SAD this winter

This month is January, when we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. How ironic that Dr. King said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” What is the ultimate measure for each of us as we leave 2020—a year with a pandemic, lives lost, political controversy, racial tensions and economic insecurity? We leave 2020 with the hope of a vaccine, but a long winter ahead.

More darkness, cold temperatures and warnings to “stay home and avoid going out unless absolutely necessary.” This follows nine months of coping with a plague that has impacted everyone. So, we are not alone, because many of us feel that way. However, our feelings of social isolation are worse than ever. Social workers who specialize in mental health treatment say while the crisis instills anxiety and depression for many, those who suffer from mental health disorders are being further traumatized by the perceived need to isolate. Sleep issues, increased use of drugs and alcohol, paranoia and lack of exercise are additional consequences of being isolated.

Technology helps a lot to keep us connected to our loved ones, but as far as I know, nobody has figured out how to hug through a screen. It can be very therapeutic to give yourself a hug. Wrap your arms around yourself and feel the human touch. It can be comforting and self-soothing and you deserve it.

Interaction is different on Zoom than in a social situation. Teletherapy does provide ease of access in that you don’t need transportation to see a therapist and therapists can cover more geographical territory. Also, technology helps us connect to persons who may live in other states or countries. The stresses associated with travelling may decrease, but life goes on, and we can’t be near the little toddlers as they experience new developmental stages or our loved ones who are in facilities that cannot allow visitors. We cry for our loved ones who die alone. The holidays don’t feel like the holidays because we’re not able to celebrate in the same way. 

Feeling hopeful when you are isolated and experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is extremely challenging. The first step is to be aware of your feelings and know that even if you’re isolated, you are not necessarily alone. This is some paradox. It may seem like a far reach to gather the tools needed to cope with what you’re experiencing. Your tools are those activities which provide comfort for the blues. Music, creative writing, reading, mindfulness, cooking, exercising, painting, praying, connecting on the telephone or Zoom, poetry, drama, board games, crossword puzzles, cards, knitting, sculpting and even cleaning may be tools that help you feel less down. Lights, rituals, volunteering by creating cards or calling others who may be alone can help lift us up. There is no one way of raising our spirits, but it takes courage to believe that change is possible. The practice of gratitude can also transform how we feel. 

As a realist and a therapist, I know that you can try every one of these things and not necessarily feel a lot better. We have to quiet the negative self-talk in our heads and commit to the healing process. This is hard and it takes courage. We may need to reach out for more professional assistance, and we may need to go out of our comfort zone. Believing that you have a choice in how you confront adversity strengthens your ability to manage it. The French Philosopher Albert Camus said, “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”