Chicago resident Ana Santander left her hometown in Ecuador 23 years ago to start a new life with her husband and kids in the Windy City. Over the years she’s gotten used to a new culture and way of life. But regardless of how well she has adjusted, each year she dreads facing another cold, freezing winter.
These past two years during the pandemic, Santander said, the winters have felt unbearable.
“With the pandemic, I have been feeling depressed,” Santander said in Spanish. “I just stared at four walls every day.”
Santander is not the only one fighting back the stress and depression that can come with winter, particularly this one that’s been marked by the arrival of the Omicron variant and a surge in cases of COVID-19.
“When we’re talking about people’s mood, two years into a pandemic, many of us in our field, mental health workers and clinicians, are worried about a mental health crisis,” said Dr. Aderonke Bamgbose Pederson, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and faculty member at Harvard Medical School.
During the winter, sunlight is limited and it’s hard to go outdoors when the temperature is below freezing. In the United States, about 14% of the population experiences what’s known as the “winter blues.”
Others experience what’s called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, a common type of mood disorder related to changes in seasons, particularly winter. This condition affects about 5% of the U.S. adult population. SAD symptoms can include ongoing fatigue, changes in sleep and loss of energy. “Feeling sad, having a low mood, losing interest in things or losing your ability to derive pleasure from activities that you once found enjoyable [are common with SAD],” Dr. Pederson said.
Experts say like so many mental health issues, the rates of SAD have increased with the pandemic.
Dr. Fabiana Araujo, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, said it’s important to distinguish between the winter blues and SAD.
People experiencing SAD often stop engaging in activities they enjoy, isolate themselves, and in extreme cases, they can experience psychotic symptoms, Dr. Araujo said. It’s important that people who have SAD symptoms or other signs of depression seek professional help.
For those experiencing the winter blues, irritability or an increase in stress and anxiety, Dr. Pederson and Dr. Araujo say there are a number of things people can do that can help get them through these pandemic winter months. The overarching theme, they told Curious City, is to get outdoors when you can and to stay connected — to other people and your environment.
Easier said than done, we know.
It’s no secret, there are countless benefits to exercising. But during this second pandemic winter, getting your heartbeat going is more important than ever.
“By that I mean increasing your heart rate, right to a point that you will start to sweat, and doing that for at least 45 minutes, three to four times a week,” Dr. Araujo said.
Something to keep in mind if you’re having a hard time getting moving is that exercising regularly, studies show, can be as beneficial as taking antidepressants, Dr. Araujo said.
“Our body has the ability to produce and secrete some neurotransmitters, or some mono chemical components that simulate experiences of joy or happiness,” she said. Still, this doesn’t mean people should stop taking medication if it’s been prescribed, she added.
Even if you don’t have a gym membership, you can stream a free yoga class from home, go for a power walk in a nearby park or sign up for an in-person or virtual exercise class through the Chicago Park District.
Or, you can dance. Ana Santander, the resident originally from Ecuador, goes to dance aerobic lessons at a church on the Southwest Side most afternoons. She feels comfortable there because most aerobic participants wear masks and the space is large enough for them to social distance.
“I feel a lot better since I’ve been coming here,” Santander said. “I’ve been able to get through the winter and the pandemic.”
Try to spend some time outdoors to get exposure to natural sunlight. Any amount of time spent outside can help, whether it’s a short walk around the block or a five mile hike at a forest preserve. It’s particularly effective to go outside around 12:00 pm, even on those days that are grey and cold, Dr. Araujo said.
College student Reilly Kenney and his friends were out recently making the best of a grey Saturday afternoon at the Dan Ryan Woods. “We got some cardboard and we thought, well, let’s go sledding with it,” he said.
Kenney recently tested positive for COVID-19. Once he got better he felt he really needed to get out of his room and get outdoors. “I spent like about 10 to 11 days in my dorm room all by myself…isolated in a small space,” he said. “It [reminded me] of when we originally went into quarantine as a world.”
Going outdoors when it’s freezing cold outside is not always easy. The icy roads and sidewalks can make leaving home more dangerous than usual when temperatures drop, particularly for folks who are older or have disabilities.
But if possible, consider planning a wintry outdoor adventure with friends or family. Ice skating, snow-shoeing and sledding are all great options.
Try light therapy
People who can’t get outdoors very often can also try light therapy boxes that simulate sunlight. According to the Mayo Clinic, light therapy affects brain chemicals associated with mood and sleep.
Dr. Pederson recommends using these devices with the guidance of a therapist or a psychiatrist who is familiar with light therapy treatment.
“What’s usually prescribed or recommended to people is to sit in front of the light box for 20 minutes or more each day,” Dr. Pederson said, “typically in the morning.” The devices emit a bright light and filter out ultraviolet light.
Numerous studies have shown light therapy to be an effective treatment for seasonal mood disorders, Dr. Pederson said. “Sometimes in combination with other forms of treatment, but even on its own it can have an effective outcome.”
Practicing mindfulness has a ton of benefits, said Dr. Araujo.
“Mindfulness is not for everyone,” she said. “But for those who engage in mindfulness, their clinical outcomes, both for depression and anxiety, are outstanding.”
Most people experiencing anxiety are often thinking about what’s going to happen in the future, usually anticipating the worst case scenario, Dr. Araujo said. People experiencing depression often think about past experiences. Mindfulness means bringing your attention back to the present moment.
She recommends the free app Insight Timer to patients who want to start practicing meditation.
Find something you like and do it consistently
Some coping mechanisms can be healthier than others. Eating too much sugar or watching tons of TV can feel good when you’re doing it but can potentially increase feelings of depression and isolation. Dr. Pederson said it’s important to “be kind to yourself” if you feel like you are not always following an ideal daily routine.
“[There] is so much going on right now, the last thing we need is to overly focus on things that we regret,” she said. “You should forgive yourself and you should be patient with yourself.”
And then find the things you enjoy doing and do them regularly.
Dr. Araujo’s top piece of advice is simple: “Engage in activities that are joyful,” she said.
When you start experiencing pleasure and joy over time, those feelings counteract the experience of distress, sadness, anxiety, she said.
Break out of isolation
While it might be easy to isolate yourself when you’re feeling stressed, being isolated from family and friends is not always the right approach, experts said.
“There’s a lot of irritability and tension that builds up [during the winter months and during a pandemic],” Dr. Pederson said, “and that irritability and tension can certainly affect our ability to connect with others, which then can affect our mood further.”
Dr. Araujo agreed. “I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to be connected with those that we love now,” she said. If you live with others, Dr. Araujo recommended having a board game night, cooking a nice meal together or finding an arts and crafts activity to do together.
With COVID-19 cases still sky-high, connecting with others can be difficult. But even things like planning a virtual movie night with family, dropping off a care package for a friend or spending time outside together (ahem, sledding) can help you fight isolation and feel connected.
Ana Santander said going to the aerobic dance classes is not only helping her stay fit. She has also made new friends.
“Building community is very important,” Israel Alvarez Landa, Santander’s aerobics dance instructor, said in Spanish. “I am not only an instructor, I’m also a friend. This is not only an exercise group but also a support group.”
Adriana Cardona-Maguigad is Curious City’s reporter. Follow her @AdrianaCardMag