Winter blues: how to combat seasonal depression amid a pandemic

From the winter blues to Seasonal Affective Disorder, here are some tips to maintain mental health as the cold sets in. Photo courtesy of Shondaland.com 

CODY ESTEP | STAFF REPORTER | cpestep@butler.edu

As the winter ominously encroaches, so too does Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, and in the midst of a pandemic, the symptoms of seasonal depression are no laughing matter. Students’ newly found independence and a brand-new environment, combined with academic stressors, can often accentuate seasonal depressive symptoms in young people. With the ongoing pandemic, Steve Hines, a practicing psychologist for the Butler University counseling center, offers insight into what SAD actually is and how students can maintain positive mental health through the winter months. 

The Butler Collegian: How is Seasonal Affective Disorder different from General Depressive Disorder? 

Steve Hines: [They have] mostly the same symptoms, [Seasonal Affective Disorder] just follows a very distinct pattern. Typically you start to see the symptoms of depression around the onset of the fall months, and then you start to see the symptoms of depression remit as we enter the spring. [There are] no lasting symptoms with the warmer weather, whereas with general depression, the symptoms are present throughout the entire year.

TBC: Are there any discerning symptoms between seasonal depression and general depression?

SH: You are going to see a lot of overlap. [For instance], feeling down, less motivated, having a hard time getting out of bed, loss of drive, feeling apathetic or numb. The prevalence in the general U.S. population is [about] 7-8 percent experience a major depressive disorder. With college students, it is more like 10 percent. There is a much larger percentage of people who will experience something called the “winter blues.” This can be upwards of 30 percent. These people may not meet the criteria of a full diagnosis.

TBC: What are the “winter blues,” and how are they different from diagnosable seasonal or general depression?

SH: Some of that has to do with the impact of a person’s ability to function day-to-day. Some people might notice some mild symptoms, [such as] feeling a bit more down and [finding it]  harder to become motivated, but they are still able to function every day. But some people who have a harder time [functioning] that’s when it would be more important to reach out and get a diagnosis. If they are not getting out of bed, not keeping up with their work or having suicidal thoughts, those would be huge markers.

TBC: In your expert opinion, what are some general strategies to get out of these winter blues, especially amid a pandemic?

SH: The winter blues are more of a general thing people feel every year, but with COVID-19 it is likely that more people will experience [the winter blues] heading into this time of year. People who already experience seasonal depression each year will likely experience it to a higher extent, and those who have already experienced it, [their feelings] will likely be exacerbated. 

TBC: Speaking of COVID-19 and with seasonal affective disorder in mind, are there any concerns that you have, as a psychologist, about the coming season?

SH: This year, especially — we are already seeing that with the pandemic — because people are already more isolated, more lonely, [and are] struggling with routine and energy… and then you add the winter months on top of that and it is likely that people will struggle moreso.

TBC: Amid COVID-19 and the looming winter, how can students maintain positive mental health while remaining safe?

SH: Consistency is very good. Sleep is a big part of that, getting to bed at a normal time, getting an adequate amount of sleep every night, sleep hygiene [and]  sticking to the same routine. If you feel yourself having a harder time getting out of bed, get yourself moving [or] exercising. Access to vitamin D, which we get from the sun, can supplement [one’s mood] in the winter months. Social connection, staying involved in the activities you used to enjoy. Self-care, for some people that’s exercise, for some that’s video games. Keep an eye on yourself, and if you notice that the symptoms are going into a place where they are hard to manage, then talk to somebody.

 

While some students on campus look forward to winter, others are worried about how they will continue to stay connected with their friends. Junior theatre major Maddie Davies said she is concerned about the long break between semesters.

“I personally love the winter-time, so I get really excited for this time of year,” Davies said. “[However,] I think the biggest thing for me is how long our winter break is… that is just a very long time to not see my Butler friends.”

First-year finance major Graham Chen expressed similar concerns about the impending season change. As health and safety guidelines have emphasized the importance of social distancing and adequate airflow, many students have been gathering outdoors. However, freezing temperatures and precipitation will soon make it harder for students to continue outdoor activities.

“I spend most of my time outside, hanging out with my friends,” Chen said. “I don’t know what we are going to do when it gets super cold.”

The Butler University Counseling and Consultation Services office is open for anyone who may be experiencing negative emotions connected to the COVID-19 pandemic, changing seasons or stress of any kind. In accordance with the university’s social distancing guidelines, all therapy and counseling sessions are virtual. Appointments can be created on the Butler counseling services website for any time during the week. 

Hines also emphasized the office’s flexibility in scheduling and content; the counseling office is not only for students who attend scheduled, repeating therapy appointments. Hines noted that their goal is to create a welcoming space for all students’ needs.

“Folks can schedule one-time appointments, group appointments, or they can even schedule on-going repeating appointments,” Hines said. “We want to create more space for students who may not feel that they need ongoing therapy, but they just want to talk to someone.”

There are numerous resources available to all Butler students. At any time and for any reason, students are welcome to reach out to counseling services, the Center for Faith and Vocation, the Diversity Center, as well as many others found on the Butler University website.

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