For many of us, fall is the best time of year. The crisp autumn air, glowing leaves, and sweet scent of apples warm our souls and energizes our spirits. Seemingly, the only downside of fall is that it inevitably turns to winter; the sun hides behind the clouds, the temperature plummets, and our days become significantly shorter. The cold months are challenging for many people. Being cooped up in our homes, hazardous weather, and reduced sunlight can lead to mental health problems and mood issues. While we can't stop winter from coming, we do have power over ourselves and how we prepare for and cope with the cold winter months.
Winter in 2020–2021
Along with the cold winter months, this year we have the added stress of being in the midst of a global pandemic. Many of us are still working through the trauma and stress of quarantining and the changes that COVID-19 has brought. Our lives have been altered in one way or another since March when quarantining first started and social distancing became the norm. In fact, a June 2020 report shows that 40% of adults in the United States are struggling with mental health or substance abuse disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) usually occurs between November and March and is triggered by the change in season. SAD affects 0.5% to 3% of the general population, 25% of people with bipolar disorder, and 20% of people with major depression. It is important to note that not everyone who experiences an increase in depressive symptoms, sadness, or low mood during the winter months meets the criteria for SAD. The winter blues is a common phrase associated with a change in mood and energy during the late fall and winter months. However, it is not a medical term; rather, "winter blues" is an umbrella term that recognizes the changes people often experience as the season changes.
One of the first strategies for coping with the upcoming cold months is radically accepting that winter is inevitable. "Radical acceptance" is a term used in counseling that references an ability to accept reality as it is, even when you don’t like it, don’t agree with it, and don’t understand it. If you are not a cold-weather person, yet you live in the northern hemisphere where you experience snow and below-freezing temperatures, reminding yourself of how much you hate winter is only going to add to your depression and low mood. Instead, try to focus your attention on the beauty and benefits of winter. Focusing on the beauty doesn’t mean that you like the cold; instead, it turns your attention to something about it that is more helpful for your psyche. Hanging on to useless feelings of hate, disdain, and anger is only going to add to your emotional suffering.
Try to identify a radical acceptance phrase that is personal to you and that you can reference when you are struggling with accepting the winter months. Examples can include, “Winter is hard for me and I am going to look for the positives about winter,” “I don’t like the winter months and I accept that it is part of life,” and, “it is what it is.” Be creative and come up with your own radical acceptance phrase that you can use.
Strategies to Prepare for the Cold Months
Other strategies to help you prepare for the cold months include:
- Talking to a mental health professional
- Planning a vacation during the winter
- Taking your medication as prescribed
- Stocking up on necessities to limit your exposure to the dangerous elements that winter can bring
- Learning a winter sport or activity
- Creating a “to-do list” for your home and checking your list off as you accomplish each item
- Finding ways to contribute to other people by volunteering your time, donating items, or baking treats for others
- Learning a new hobby that you are interested in
- Staying connected with loved ones through virtual platforms and scheduling regular visits
Light therapy is another option that can help you tolerate the winter months. The idea behind light therapy is that it is used to help replace the rays of the sun and subsequent vitamin D exposure that is lost during the cold months.
If you know that the winter months increase your feelings of depression, sadness, and other negative emotions, there are steps you can take to help you prepare for and cope with the changes that winter brings. Taking some small steps can help your winter experience be the best it can be. You don’t have to like winter to have a positive winter experience.
You may want to talk to your doctor about your symptoms if they become severe. Your doctor may be able to prescribe medication and refer you to a mental health professional who specializes in SAD. ScriptSave WellRx can help with the cost of prescriptions if medication is part of your treatment plan. We can't stop winter from coming, but we can do things to help make our winter experience the best it can be.
Jacquelyn Buffo is a licensed professional counselor with experience and expertise in substance abuse and mental health issues. She received her MS in mental health counseling from Capella University and is a Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor through the state of Michigan. She is also in the process of receiving her certification in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Jacquelyn has experience working with clients suffering from addiction and mental health issues on an in-home, residential, and outpatient basis. Currently, she works with adolescents and adults with Borderline Personality Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, PTSD and Generalized Anxiety Disorder through Henry Ford Health System.