When Seasonal Depression Is Compounded by Pandemic Isolation

Creative ways to cope with winter depression (SAD).

Posted Jan 05, 2021

The winter of 2020-21 will put our resilience to the test. In a season when sunlight is sparse and, even in a good year, many of us suffer with depression, we are now tasked with isolation. This limits some of the coping tools we'd normally turn to. The annual articles about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) give us much of the same advice year after year: exercise, sit under a sun lamp, and have your doctor check your Vitamin D level. Okay, did all that, still feeling miserable—now what?

I believe society tends to make a fundamental error when conceptualizing “negative” moods as intruders we must fight to stave off. We can do much better at seeing our whole spectrum of moods as a natural part of who we are, to be witnessed and experienced—unless, of course, they become significantly disruptive or dangerous. But what if we reimagine mood more like a dance partner than a sparring partner? Allowing all of our moods to show up at the metaphorical dinner table, not as uninvited guests, but as wise elders with lessons to share. For example, seasonal depression may indeed be trying to tell us our Vitamin D level is low or we’re not getting enough exercise. It may be trying to tell us we’re neglecting our social bonds or our instinct to create and express ourselves through some artistic medium.

I recall one winter over a decade ago when I was feeling particularly mired in the long gray season. That was the winter I truly learned what it meant to witness and honor all of my moods and the messages of my body, as opposed to hating those parts that felt like suffering. I learned to witness and dance with the discomfort of a depressed mood without judging it so harshly for showing up on the floor.

This was the dance: Over the course of that winter, I worked with a counselor to redefine my rigid beliefs about winter and find a rhythm I could move to—personal ways to give meaning to the season. First, I learned how to witness, honor, and appreciate aspects of winter rather than blanket the entire season with resentment. Then, to notice and appreciate the messages my body was sending and give myself permission to accept a slower, gentler pace. This meant I could indulge in naps, baths, cooking comfort foods, and reading books under thick blankets. It also meant accepting that some days I wouldn’t get much done, but that didn’t have to define the next day. To give every new day a chance. Finally, I learned how to incorporate symbolic objects into my home that reference what I love about warmer seasons and tend to long for in the winter. This is a process I now refer to as creating a winter oasis and here’s how I do it:

1. Engage All Your Senses.

Intentionally incorporate into your home or workspace ways to frequently engage your senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. These are structures for helping you feel connected to your environment, stay present, and feel mentally and spiritually stimulated when things feel “blah”.

The first winter I experimented with the oasis concept, I bought calming essential oils. I also burned natural wood incense that creates the pleasant association of a cozy wood fire. I listened to soothing and uplifting music and occasionally bought a new plant or flower arrangement.

2. Connect With The Elements.

Brainstorm ways to incorporate into your space the classical four elements of life: earth, water, fire, and air. One might also consider the Chinese tradition of Wu Xing, where the focus is on the five virtues: water, wood, fire, metal, and earth.

When I was living in the Midwest, when everything was covered in snow and I yearned to see green grass, I would decorate my fireplace hearth with lush live plants. I would set up a small tabletop water fountain decorated with smooth stones and driftwood I picked from the beach on memorable walks with my partner. If you have less space, how about making a terrarium in a bottle, a fairy garden in a plant pot, or a funny Chia pet.

3. Stay Present.

This is true for any season, whatever the mood, but it can be particularly challenging in the winter. Cultivating a sense of everyday mindfulness helps us avoid the rumination of the past and the anxiety of the future. Mindful attention to a task at hand can boost productivity and assuage the desperation for better times.

I’m not necessarily suggesting a sitting meditation (unless that is a practice that works well for you), but something that you carry with you throughout the day in all that you do. For instance, if it’s time to wash those pajamas we’ve all been spending so much time in, do so with mindful attention. Notice the softness of the fabric in your fingers, the intricacies of their pattern and color. Then, take in the scent of the laundry detergent. The sound of the water as it fills the machine. The comforting hum of the dryer and the little static sparks that tickle your fingers as you pull out the freshly washed clothes. By practicing mindful attention to the items on your to-do list, your brain stays present in the task at hand rather than defaulting to the anxiety state of a tough year. Plus, you get things accomplished, the days pass by, and you might just experience the benefit of a better night’s sleep—something researchers are now finding may be essential for preventing or coping with COVID-19.

4. Create Connections In New Ways.

We must take responsibility for our engagement with the world around us. This is especially important in a winter of isolation. This is about reaching out when we’re in need and extending a hand when we see others suffering. Create opportunities for laughter, affection, and some healthy whining. Even if you don’t think something will help, create the atmosphere anyway. Give it a chance to play out. And even better, try to create some structure/schedule around it. For example, a weekly virtual breakfast with friends that happens at the same time each week. Something that forces you to wake up and show up. (I can’t emphasize enough the importance of maintaining consistent sleep and a schedule during the winter.)

What about making or buying a huggable stuffed animal that you can send to loved ones who would be brightened by a surprise in the mail? A surprise that represents your physical bond. Each teddy bear you send, for example, might come with a note that says, “This bear represents those great hugs we used to share. We will someday share them again but, for now, I’ve sewn in my spirit and I’m right there in the bear when you need a hug.”

This is also about seeking out opportunities where we might have previously assumed there were none. For example, being more open to outdoor activities in the winter. One way of engaging is to adopt a “photographer’s eye” and start taking photos of beautiful scenes only winter can provide. In the cold Midwest, I took up winter hiking and bird watching. It got me out of the house (with the promise of a hot chocolate along the way) and my photos connected me with fellow nature lovers online. Consider documenting your finds on a site/app like iNaturalist, that helps organizations and citizen scientists monitor species. Similarly, the winter is a fun time to participate in Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count that takes place outdoors between December 14 and January 5th.

When you can’t see the green grass for months and there are stretches of days without blue sky, winter can feel symbolic of things ending or dying. But I’ve also practiced thinking of winter as the Earth preparing for spring—my favorite season. Spring seeds don’t know to sprout without receiving a cue from the cold. So, I take a cue from nature and listen to my body’s need to take things slower, get more rest, and to build up anticipation and energy for the coming busy spring season that will arrive sooner than we think. The older I’ve gotten, the more quickly those days seem to arrive and I don’t want to waste an entire season merely waiting for the next.

On a final note: I don’t want to make light of the common SAD interventions. If you’re experiencing disruptive depression this winter, do talk to a doctor about the possibility of Vitamin D deficiency. Supplementation and/or using a sun lamp can be a simple natural boost, but one that ought to be monitored through blood testing. Physical movement is imperative. Your doctor may also suggest the addition of an antidepressant. I believe these are all valuable tools in the toolkit for those coping with seasonally affected mood. A robust holistic approach that may include building a winter oasis of senses and experiences.

(This article has been adapted from its original publication on 9/23/15)