Dark winter months might feel even gloomier during the pandemic — unless you find the right coping mechanism to help you stay energized and connected to others.
Clinical psychologist and associate professor at Northwestern University Inger Burnett-Zeigler said that every year during this time her clients report experiencing moods changes, feeling more sluggish and lacking the motivation to get up in the mornings.
The pandemic doesn’t make things better.
According to experts from the National Alliance on Mental Health, if prior to COVID-19 the U.S. was in the midst of a mental health crisis, the pandemic worsened the situation by bringing additional stress from the unknowns, isolation and fewer opportunities to socialize.
First things first: If you feel that your emotional state is going down drastically, you can reach out to mental health professionals at Alaska Behavioral Health, both through telehealth and in person. More details can be found at https://alaskabehavioralhealth.org. People experiencing a mental health crisis, isolation or depression can also call the CareLine of Alaska at (877) 266-4357. It’s open 24 hours.
To those who want to tackle the combination of winter blues and the pandemic uncertainty on their own, Burnett-Zeigler suggests finding creative ways to interact with people, cultivate healthy habits and use any opportunity to get outside and move.
Get enough light
Some of the reasons winter season can bring people down are purely physiological. The lack of sunlight might result in lower levels of serotonin—the chemical that, among other things, affects our mood, according to research from the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience.
To get the maximum amount of natural light, it is a good idea to go on walks or exercise outside, but if it gets too cold, you can at least move closer to the window or use artificial light, especially in the morning, wrote researcher and health expert Sherri Melrose.
Another way to address the winter blues is light therapy using a lightbox — a lamp that exposes you to 10,000 lux of light, but as little UV light as possible, according to Melrose.
Lastly, helping your body produce serotonin can also mean getting enough chemicals that help its synthesis, for example, by taking vitamin D supplements.
Move your body
Pandemic or not, exercising during winter is another way to lift your mood and manage stress.
“When the days get darker, colder, there is an urge to hunker down and become more sedentary,” Burnett-Zeigler said. “This is why it’s even more important to create opportunities to move your body.”
Exercising helps the brain release dopamine, another chemical that helps better manage stress and anxiety.
Making use of the benefits exercise brings can be relatively easy. Short home workouts, dancing or even actively moving while cleaning your house can make a difference between a sedentary lifestyle and getting exercise.
While some gyms are closed and indoor group exercising options are limited, Fairbanks is a great place for outdoor activity even, or especially, during winter months.
Winter biking is one great option, with trails such as Skyline Ridge Park Secret Trail, White Mountains Trail network and Goldstream Valley attracting bikers year round. Joel Buth from Fairbanks Cycle Club said that some of the trails are rough early in the season but become smoother after at least 8 inches of snow accumulates.
Another great winter sports option is cross country skiing. Buth said that while some of the trails near the University of Fairbanks and Birch Hill are maintained specifically for skiing, any multi-use trail around White Mountains, Goldstream Public Use area or “outside of your door can be a great place to get out and get away from people.”
Whichever exercising option you choose, doing it safely means avoiding crowds, using a face covering and keeping your distance.
Talk to people
If during regular cold months people choose to stay home and socialize less, that trend can only intensify during the pandemic when the cultural life is on halt, and being in closed spaces with other people can be dangerous.
Feeling of isolation can get especially strong during the holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas that in regular years symbolize connection.
To address the lack of socializing the pandemic is bringing, mental health experts suggest using any creative way to socialize, from old-fashioned phone calls to creative Zoom family dinner parties.
Coping with the stress of the pandemic
Besides the challenges any winter brings, the pandemic time also comes with unique stressors such as uncertainty around the future, health and finances, as well as exhaustion from prolonged anxiety, Burnett-Zeigler said.
She added that as stressors accumulate, it is important to find activities that recharge you — anything from journaling to going on walks to spending more time with your pets — and do them regularly.
“Of course your daily structure isn’t what it looks like,” she said, “but you can think about how your new structure could benefit your mental wellbeing.”
Healthy routines are a good way to help your mental health. From small things like getting dressed and making your bed to a more substantial exercise routine and making it a habit to reach out to people — these things can add a sense of control and help you make sure you support your mental health needs.
For regulating the increased levels of anxiety during the pandemic, experts suggest equipping yourself with information from credible, reputable sources and set limitations on how much news you consume a day. Reading news versus watching or listening to it can also help control those limits.
As far as uncertainty goes, Burnett-Zeigler said that while we can’t predict what the future holds, “rather than focusing on the many unknowns,” we can shift our attention to the present moment and short-term plans.
“It is important to do what we can,” she said. “It’s all about shifting away what used to be to what is available.”
Contact staff writer Alena Naiden at 459-7587. Follow her on Twitter @FDNMlocal.