This year's winter blues have been made darker by COVID and natural disasters. Here's how to beat them

·4 min read
Experts say there is a compounding effect on mental health when collective tragedies — like the extreme flooding in B.C. and the ongoing pandemic — happen amid the shortest days of the year. (Shutterstock / panitanphoto - image credit)
Experts say there is a compounding effect on mental health when collective tragedies — like the extreme flooding in B.C. and the ongoing pandemic — happen amid the shortest days of the year. (Shutterstock / panitanphoto - image credit)

Seasonal depression is common for many British Columbians in the dark winter months, but experts say this year, in particular, the symptoms could be made worse by the pandemic and recent natural disasters.

Around 15 per cent of Canadians experience mild symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — which include deflated mood, feeling demotivated, oversleeping, overeating or extreme fatigue — with up to five per cent experiencing severe symptoms that affect one's ability to do everyday tasks.

Symptoms typically begin when the days get noticeably shorter in October and lasts until March or April, but some experience symptoms into the summer months.

Erin Michalak, a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, said there is a compounding effect on those symptoms when collective tragedies — like the recent extreme flooding in B.C. and the ongoing pandemic — happen as the days get shorter.

"It does feel like it's been a year of layering stress after stress after stress," she said.

"One of the things that we know very clearly from research is that there is a strong relationship between life events and stresses and depression."

Even people who haven't been directly affected by disasters like flooding or wildfires can have vicarious trauma as they relate the experiences back to their own lives, says Katie Hayes, a senior policy analyst for Health Canada who studies the links between climate change and mental health.

Now, as new restrictions come in to prevent the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant, shrinking our social circles and cancelling stress-relieving indoor activities like fitness classes, Michalak says it can be harder to cope amid the short days.

"It's this continual layering of stress that's happening as well in the context of the fact that we're still in the middle of a pandemic and many of the things that help us keep resilient and stave off episodes of depression, for example, are unavailable to us," she said.

So what can be done to stave off the symptoms of seasonal depression?

Here are some tips from experts.

Let in the light

Natasha Sharma, a former therapist turned wellness entrepreneur, writer and speaker, says humans need light to thrive.

She says the simple act of opening up your blinds or curtains every morning to let in natural light could boost your mood during the winter months.

Light therapy, which uses a special lamp to mimic natural sunlight, "has been shown to be really helpful for really strong cases of seasonal affective issues," she said.

London Public Library
London Public Library

Sharma said just turning on the lights in your living space could have the same effect.

Head outside, be active

Spending time outdoors and being active could also help with the winter blues, Sharma says.

"Making sure we're eating well, exercising, making ourselves go outside and breathe fresh air is really important because it does interact with our mood very significantly," she said.

But being active doesn't mean you need to be a gym rat, she says.

"You don't have to be on a treadmill. Just be active, just be moving. You can go for a walk, but you can also just walk around your house," she said.

Start a task

To help with symptoms like a lack of motivation, Sharma say simply starting a task can have an immediate effect to combat low mood.

This includes simple things like doing the dishes, cleaning, or taking out the garbage, she said.

"These sorts of focus tasks are really effective at this short-term relief for these feelings of low mood. And then what happens is we get onto this sort of motivation choo-choo train. It doesn't happen always, but it can rev your engine."

Set limits

Too much of anything can be harmful, Sharma said, which is why she said to keep limits on certain activities to try to self-regulate your mood.

"That means making sure that we put limitations on how much news we're consuming, especially the negative stuff," she said.

"That means putting limitations on how much junk food we're putting into our body. That means limitations on how much Netflix we're bingeing."

Finally, seeing as we have just passed the solstice, there is comfort in knowing that the days are becoming longer and the warmer weather of spring is nearer.

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