A Possible "Double Whammy" of Depression and Lockdown Ahead

How you can prepare for the winter.

Posted Nov 10, 2020

In a recent article in The New York Times, Jane Brody wrote, “This winter, the pandemic is expected to intensify the depression experienced by many people with the syndrome known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, which predictably kicks in each fall when the hours of daylight shorten in the Northern hemisphere and gradually remits in spring.”

But it’s not just those individuals with SAD who are already struggling with feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, fatigue, sadness, and lack of energy — all of which can be signs of depression. Many of us worry about the coming months as COVID spikes around the world and in our own communities, and lockdowns are put in place — which has already, according to The Economist, happened in more than 20 countries.

For example, a client emailed me the day after Joe Biden was elected the next president of the United States. “Everybody’s celebrating, but we still have rising COVID rates and winter coming. Once the excitement has worn off, what are we going to do to cope with the winter and the pandemic?”

And a friend told me that her young child, looking at the bleak landscape and bare trees of late autumn reflected something of her own dread of the coming winter, by saying, “The trees have all died.”

So what can be done about this overwhelming and all-too-understandable sense of doom?

There are many ways to cope with another lockdown, which, it’s important to remember, is intended to protect us from the ravages of the pandemic. Over the course of last spring and summer, numerous articles, blog posts, and websites offered a wide range of suggestions — from taking up a new hobby and joining an online group to enhance your skills, to bundling up to meet a friend for a socially distanced, in-person walk and many options in between. You’re probably familiar with many of these — all of which, along with much more, exist online now. You can take a yoga class, learn to knit, improve your language skills, or join a cooking or a meditation group, all online, with other folks, or on your own.

But the difficulty for most of us is that while we’re fine finding those activities when we’re feeling fine, we have more troubles getting started — or even thinking about what we might want to do — when we're down. In the throes of a gloomy mood and a cold, dark day, it can be almost impossible to think of a single thing you want to do.

Joel Kanter, a clinical social work psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in Maryland, recently wrote on a listserv for other therapists, “As winter approaches and the pandemic continues, it seems that in many cases we need to shift our focus as therapists. The isolating impacts of the pandemic are likely to continue for months and the opportunities for social interaction with appropriate outside social distancing are diminishing.” Our work, he suggests, is to help clients brainstorm for ways to cope with what Brody described as a "double whammy" of depression from SAD and the pandemic.

Kanter uses the metaphor of a bear foraging for nuts and berries in the fall to prepare for winter hibernation. In our case, he says, “we need to prepare with social nutrients, not nuts and berries.”

A client of mine calls it “setting up a treasure chest of options.” She says that when she is depressed, it’s hard for her to come up with possible activities to make herself feel better, so she needs to have the chest set up and packed full of ideas ahead of time.

 149831466 TM Photography
Source: 123rf Image ID: 149831466 TM Photography

What’s also important: Get started on some of these activities now, when you’re feeling good, so that when things start to get gloomy, you’re already in a routine.

When my client is feeling good, she and I spend time thinking of things that she can realistically get herself to do when she’s feeling down. She has a running list of these ideas on her computer. She has also copied it to her notes on her phone, and she has printed it out and attached it to her refrigerator with magnets.

The list includes super simple tasks to do when she can barely get herself moving, such as sweeping the kitchen floor, getting out her yoga mat and simply lying down on it, and calling a friend to talk for three minutes. 

But she has also done her research and has a number of websites lined up for when she can do something a little more complicated. She has written down shows she likes to watch, ranging from serious documentaries to silly sitcoms to romantic movies to dark detective stories. She has joined a crochet group and her list includes the link to the group and projects she would like to start. She has also joined a political group and she has that link listed, as well as the email addresses of some of the people in that group who she likes and is enjoying getting to know better.

There are other things in her treasure chest as well — including taking a warm shower or a bubble bath, turning on upbeat music from the eighties, and calling her granddaughter for a quick chat — always good for a giggle or two.

The point is not that you should use her list or any or all of the suggestions that are waiting for you online and in the news. The point is to cull those ideas to make a list of your own and to get started building some of these activities into your life right away.

Your list, and your preparation — whether it’s to join an online group (or two or three), to set up regular Zoom chats with family and/or friends, or to have a regularly scheduled, socially-distanced walk with a friend — is your way of foraging. You are looking for and finding enough psychological “berries and nuts” now, when the weather is still nice and you still have the energy and the interest, to get you through whatever this winter might bring.

And recent news offers hope that it might even bring good news in the way of a vaccine. According to The New York Times on November 10, 2020, Pfizer has announced positive early results from its coronavirus vaccine trial.

In which case, you can look forward to a time when you will be able to put all of the skills you’ve learned in your new online cooking class to use with a big, celebratory dinner for friends and family. Just keep yourself safe until we get the all-clear!