Healthy Mind

How To Get Through the Final Weeks of 2020 With the Perfect Storm of Mental-Health Triggers Upon Us

Mary Grace Garis

Photo: Getty Images/Carlos G Lopez
In a regular winter landscape, landmines abound that trigger the winter blues: The holidays! Loneliness! The sun setting at 4:30 p.m.! But in this pandemic year, those typical markers of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Knowing this, how can we best navigate these final weeks of 2020 while dealing with any symptoms of depression in the midst of the pandemic?

As a reminder, seasonal affective disorder has to do with lack of light. "Reduced sunlight can disrupt our internal clock and cause a decrease in serotonin," says Rachel Hoffman, PhD, head therapist for mental-health provider Real. "Darkness signals to our body that it is time to rest and sleep, so when it becomes darker earlier, and we are still required to work, it becomes harder to concentrate and focus."

"The decreased socialization of this year especially can certainly exacerbate the seasonal affective sadness that many of us already experience." —Rachel Hoffman, PhD

And those of us who are working for home more due to COVID-19 may have less separation between work and play than in years past. "Now that we're home all day, nighttime turns from working in a chair to laying in bed," Dr. Hoffman says. "The decreased socialization of this year especially can certainly exacerbate the seasonal affective sadness that many of us already experience."

So yes, things may feel more bleak than in years past—but we can get through it. Below, get expert-informed tips for dealing with symptoms of depression during the pandemic.

11 expert tips for dealing with depression during the pandemic

1. Acknowledge that things are—still—not normal 

It's truly okay to not function like you would if you weren't being controlled by an invisible life-threatening virus.

"We usually think of depression and anxiety as something abnormal, something wrong with you," says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. "We need to de-stigmatize that, because with everything going on, it's totally reasonable not to feel good. It's not necessarily something wrong with you—it really could be a reasonable way to feel about the world and other people right now."

2. Be present in the small joys that you have

"Write notes of gratitude to people past and present who have made a difference in your life, telling them the reasons you feel grateful to them," says clinical psychologist Helene Brenner, PhD. "Then send them the note or read it to them, face-to-face. Research has shown that sharing such letters improves the mood of both the receiver and the sender for up to a month afterward. It also, not surprisingly, makes both people feel closer and more bonded to the other."

And if those thankfulness practices feel inauthentic to you, instead focus on small wins you experience. "If you're eating a favorite food, make that food the center of your existence, and really slowly savor it," says Dr. Daramus. "If you're petting the dog or cat, really enjoy the moment. Notice the feel of the fur, the sound of purring, and other details. Seize whatever moment of pleasure you can."

3. Continue making plans with others

FaceTime and platforms of its ilk may have lost the novelty they packed in the spring, but it's important to consciously stay close to one another.

"I know we're all sick of those Zoom calls, but it's time to get creative again," says Dr. Hoffman. "Virtual comedy shows, cocktail-making classes, and concerts are just some activities being offered in an online format. Also make sure to keep checking in with friends. I know it can be challenging when there's not much to update, but keeping a social support network can be really useful in protecting yourself from the winter blues."

4. Talk to your friends and family authentically

We're all feeling drained right now, and when you play the game of "who's having the worst pandemic," everyone loses. So, stick to your personal boundaries, and try to trade off venting about those hard days.

"Take turns giving and receiving social support so that everyone gets a chance to say what's going on with them and have people listen to them," says Dr. Daramus.

5. Buy a light box or light lamp

"Light lamps for SAD have become smaller and less expensive," says Dr. Brenner. "Even people who don't have a clinical case of SAD can benefit from the extra light. "

As someone who does have SAD, know that I love my bottled sunlight.

6. Connect as much possible with your pod (if it is safe to do so)

If you're spending time with a spouse who is grinding your nerves, or you are quarantining with your family, that's...well, that's a lot. Please set some boundaries and invest in a lock. But also look at this as an opportunity to really get to know your loved ones.

"I recommend intimacy cards to clients," says Dr. Hoffman. "My favorite ones are from BestSelfCo. They are cards with questions that you can ask a romantic partner, friends, or even family members."

7. Try to separate from your negative thoughts

"Give your depression or anxiety a personality, or choose a fictional character to personify it so that you can get some distance from it," says Dr. Daramus. "Watch your thoughts like they're just a TV show, and turn it off, or argue with the character that personifies your anxiety, and set some boundaries about how they're allowed to talk to you."

8. Get outdoors as much as possible

Even with cooler temps, less sun, and fewer flowers, getting outside can be a psychological game-changer. Do it with a podmate, and you're now enjoying the Nordic concept of friluftsliv.

"A 15-minute daytime walk has been shown to significantly improve mood," says Dr. Brenner. "If you don't want to walk outdoors, any kind of indoor exercise is beneficial as well. Consider making your exercise more of a 'social' experience—for example, by attending an online yoga class."

9. Flip the script

One positivity hack I've been trying to do is medicate with "opposite thoughts" to find silver linings. To do it, think of the best-case scenario for whatever your situation is.

Dr. Daramus dares you to ask yourself if there's anything you can embrace about a winter alone? Is it your chance to decorate for the holidays however you want, or to make the perfect holiday dinner because you don't have 40 relatives around to argue with about what to serve? Is this a rare breath of air compared to celebrations with toxic relatives? Really own it.

10. Know that you can handle this—one micro step at a time

Mini goals make getting macro goals finished way easier, especially on days when you can barely do the bare minimum.

"If you can't make yourself vacuum the entire house, just do a room or two and then do some more later," says Dr. Daramus. "Any time a task looks huge, give yourself permission to do just a little bit whenever you can. If you have a 10-page paper to write, do a page and take a quick break, then do one more page."

11. Nurture yourself in the way you'd want to be nurtured

"Especially if you're more isolated and alone than you'd ever choose to be, compensate by being the nicest friend to yourself you can possibly be," says Dr. Brenner. "Cook really good foods for yourself. Be kind and gentle to yourself if you feel down. Cut down on mindless activities that don't fill you up, and look for activities that interest you and leave you feeling better."

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