UK HealthCare

How to Navigate 'The Winter Blues' During the Ongoing Pandemic

Winter mask
Photo credit: Andrei310, iStock / Getty Images Plus.

The University of Kentucky Public Relations & Strategic Communications Office provides a weekly health column available for use and reprint by news media. This week's column is by Timothy Ainger, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist and an assistant professor of neurology with the UK College of Medicine and the Kentucky Neuroscience Institute.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 1, 2021) — Every year there is attention drawn to the proclivity for individuals to experience a shift in mood and behavior which parallel with the shift in the seasons. The historical concept of “the winter blues,” is now theorized to be a marker for the development of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Hallmarks of these conditions include a decline in energy (both physical and mental), sluggishness, fatigue, and generally feeling run-down.  While some people can feel these effects and are still able to function, others can find these changes to be an impediment to healthy functioning.

What makes this winter arguably more noteworthy is the abnormality of the preceding year.  2020 is likely on the short-list of so many peoples “worst years” already, but to make matters worse it was a year where for our own personal safety our interactions with others were severely restricted and our routines were dramatically altered.

Research has demonstrated repeatedly that long-term isolation can have a negative impact on personal well-being. Factors such as social isolation, reduced activity, reduced input and stimuli from the environment, and a reduction in autonomy have been demonstrated to exacerbate emotional concerns.

One of the big findings beginning to emerge in mental health literature pursuant to the Covid-19 pandemic is that any permutation or gradation of preexisting condition can be dramatically exacerbated, as more and more stressors are present. Financial strain, fatigue, frustration over a global pandemic, providing education at home… the summative impact of these factors can be enough to impact someone’s emotional state. So with the entirety of 2020 as a premorbid condition, it stands to reason that some of us may be more susceptible to the impact of a shift in seasons.  So what can we do to mitigate these factors?

First and foremost, it is important to take an accurate evaluation of oneself.  Allow yourself to be honest and write down how you’re doing. Even a quick daily note about your mood, energy level, stressors, etc., can help us to start identifying patterns in our lives that are both positive and negative. The first step to improving is understanding our baseline.

Make a list of areas where you are doing well… and areas where you are not doing well. Monitor the activities, people, and other factors which give you more energy, and those which leave you feeling negative. Try to maximize time on activities where you have a positive outcome, rather than those which cause you frustration; likewise, surround yourself in your personal time with people who are positive influences, and minimize interaction with those who bring you down.

Don’t get hung up on “meeting new year’s resolutions,” and instead, work on targeting manageable, achievable goals. The stigma of becoming an entirely new person just because the calendar has changed can be incredibly stress-inducing, especially in a year where our access to resources may be severely limited. If you find yourself struggling to complete things, don’t give up: focus on the next step, rather than the end goal.

Generate a short list of daily self-care activities, and strive to complete them (even if they are bathing, eating, and changing your clothes). Sometimes just finishing something can make us feel as if we have succeeded or achieved. A great way to double-dip on this benefit is to make your goals something that can be beneficial for your overall health.

Make time for yourself. Especially if you spend your day working from home, the lines between your workplace and your personal space can get blurred, and we begin to psychologically associate our sanctums with employment rather than respite. Block a special part of the day where you turn off devices, can have some “alone time,” and focus on recharging your mind and body.  Exercise, a long bath, a good book, whatever you may find beneficial. Additionally, reinforcing your boundaries to those around you can be empowering.

Communicate with others. If you live with family or roommates, let them know how you are feeling and what you need to do to work on yourself. Open and honest communication helps to reduce anxiety in the environment. If you live alone, try to find a friend with whom you can communicate regularly, and who can be you “accountability-buddy”.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help! You can utilize simple social supports (e.g., starting a videochat book club or joining a hobby/interest group that meets virtually) or reach out to professionals for telehealth and tele-mental health. No one should have to go through this alone, and getting the opinion and expertise of someone with similar experiences and training may help you see something you have otherwise been missing.

Additionally, make sure you are being honest with yourself. If you or someone you know is experiencing a change in emotional health that is starting to inhibit the ability to perform basic daily functions, or is having thoughts of hurting themselves, immediately contact mental health, emergency, or support services. The National Suicide Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.