This winter, crisp winds and icy sidewalks will be joined with social isolation and pandemic stress to make for an epically difficult four — or five or six — months.
According to a recent poll from National Public Radio, 1 in 4 Chicago households are already struggling with social isolation because of COVID-19. The onset of winter has many worried those struggles will worsen.
Doctors who help patients manage mood disorders believe the stress associated with isolation, plus a drop in sunlight, will lead to an increase in what’s known as seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that most often starts in the late fall and early winter.
“With the privilege of the summer and outdoors, we have been able to interact and engage in perhaps ways that we’re not going to be able to once we’re indoors again,” infectious disease expert Sadiya Khan said.
WBEZ asked Chicagoans, as well as doctors, what people are doing or should be doing to try to manage their mental health this winter.
Tips from the experts
1. Get your blood levels checked
Angelos Halaris, psychiatrist and professor at Loyola University Medical Center, said one way seasonal affective disorder is diagnosed is by checking whether a person has sufficient Vitamin D, which tends to decrease in the winter.
“We have very good normal range values, and we can tell by the value of the blood test whether the person is in normal range or deficient,” he said.
Taking Vitamin D supplements on your own can help. But your blood levels can help determine what dose you might need and whether a prescription-grade dose is necessary.
2. Use light therapy
Light therapy can help trick your body into thinking the days actually aren’t getting shorter and help boost Vitamin D that you would normally be getting from the sun, Halaris said.
“It is a little more cumbersome … because the person has to spend about 30 to 40 minutes sitting in front of the light source twice a day,” he said. “We recommend that time of the day to do that should be dawn and dusk. The idea behind light therapy is to extend the shortened light phase.”
Light boxes are available online but can be expensive. Most start around $30.
3. Make a plan to stay social
Social interaction is an effective tool in warding off depression, Halaris said, whether it’s a virtual hangout or a safe indoor hang.
Some people have created strict social pods, where they only see a certain group of people who are all following the same rules. While Khan said that might work for some, it’s not going to be possible for everyone: for instance, those who need to see family, go to work or have multiple friends from different friend groups.
Regardless, she recommends limiting the total number of people you spend time with indoors to under 10 and to use the season change to check in with your friends about standards, expectations or even rules.
“It’s good to sit down and have a discussion again about, ‘Is everyone still on the same page about the things that we’re doing?’ ” Khan said. For instance, if you’re not wiping down groceries anymore, but your friend still is, there should be a conversation about whether your friend is OK with seeing you.
What some people are doing to prepare
Below are a few of the responses we received on social media and through email about how people are getting creative to prevent winter blues and depression.
Kelly Anderson, 39:
“If my energy is lagging, I put on something silly or peppy to dance to and do indoor bowling or freeze dance parties with my kids.”
Marc Goostein, @chicagooan:
I love my snow pants and chill by the frozen lake all winter, that is when it’s light out..— Marc Goostein (@chicagooan) September 12, 2020
Leah Von Essen, Chicago:
“I’ve been getting more comfy sweatshirts, got a new cover for my anxiety weighted blanket. I spruced up my desk area to give myself more pretty things to look at.”
I’m on a furious dating rampage so as not to go it alone like last covid winter. Well, that and I got a car so I can escape…somewhere if need be— Meredith ✨ (@randommsugirl) September 13, 2020
“I am pretty strict about not starting Christmas decor and movies/music until after Thanksgiving, but this year? Forget it. As soon as November 1st hits, I am stringing lights and getting the decorations out. We need all of the extra cheer we can get out of 2020.”
Spending way too much money to go all out with decorating my house for Halloween and Christmas. The lack of festive fall/winter events is going to make the colder seasons extremely difficult.— Ry_Philly (@ry_philly) September 12, 2020
Nora Geraghty, Jefferson Park:
“This isn’t that creative, but my husband and I added both a fire pit and a patio heater to our small Jefferson Park backyard in order to increase the chances that we’ll still be able to see friends and family over the winter.”
Steve Moore, @SteveMo49119760:
Winter = later sunrises so no need to wake up early to see them. Going to the lakefront to watch.— Steve Moore (@SteveMo49119760) September 12, 2020
“During this winter with COVID in the forecast, I’m hoping to continue with some habits I’ve been slowly picking up: cooking and eating at home, doing yoga when I’m down, stressed or in need of a stretch and painting… .I have seasonal affective disorder and am already feeling lethargic and irritable with the gloomier days, but am glad to paint a few hours a day and get even a little energy boost here and there.”
Running streak! Run (or walk)at least a mile every day for 30 days, preferably outside. Remember, there’s (usually) no bad weather, only the wrong gear!— It’s me. Erin. (@looplooks) September 11, 2020
Monica Carmean, who’s fostering a dog during the pandemic:
“Many of the replies to your request are about getting prepped to go outside - snow pants, fire pits, etc, and I applaud that! I have (happily medicated) depression and for me I know the struggle isn’t being warm and dry once I get outside, it’s then when I feel glum the struggle is convincing myself to get out of bed in the first place. You know what is great at convincing me to get out of bed? A huge dog in my studio apartment who has to pee and isn’t shy about letting me know.”
Meditation yoga marijuana— kevinsterne (@kevinsterne) September 11, 2020
Mariah Woelfel is a general assignment reporter for WBEZ.