How to Cope When Seasonal Depression Collides with Pandemic Depression, with Angie Vanderwees, Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying)

Shorter days and dropping temperatures are enough to put many of us in a funk. But this year is different – on top of having to manage seasonal depression, or also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), many will also feel the emotional tolls of the pandemic weighing on them. So what happens when seasonal depression and pandemic depression collide? If you’re wondering this, you’re definitely not alone. We spoke with Angie Vanderwees, Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying), about this subject and a few things you can do to cope.

Can you tell us a little bit about what triggers seasonal depression and pandemic depression?

I strongly believe in a biopsychosocial model, which means that biological, psychological, and social factors all intersect in relation to one’s mental health.  In terms of biology, some people may have a genetic predisposition for depression, and other factors might be lack of physical exercise, poor sleep, and an unhealthy diet.  Psychologically, negative thinking patterns are prominent in people with depression, and in the social realm a lack of social support is common.  Another viewpoint is that depression is caused by an increase in life stressors such as loss of a job, and a lack of protective factors such as social support.  When we factor in the pandemic, many people have had an increase in stress such as insecurity about their job or financial strain, and social distancing has led to people feeling increasingly isolated.  During the winter months, people also often feel isolated and tend to stay inside more due to the cold weather.  Therefore, depression is only exacerbated. 

What are your top three short-term tips for coping with pandemic or seasonal depression?

  • Doing something that will allow the body or mind to be active. 
    Often when depression creeps into someone’s life they might not want to get out of bed, or they’ll spend a lot of time just sitting and ruminating in negative thoughts.  Getting up and even just doing a few stretches can help get the blood flowing and release body tension.  If stuck in a pattern of rumination, it might help to do something that will distract the mind such as reading, playing an instrument, or doing a puzzle. 
  • Doing something that will appeal to the senses.
    Burn a scented candle, make cookies, put clean sheets on the bed.  There’s tons of ideas for little things that aren’t overly significant but can be enough to lift your mood enough to get through a tough day. 
  • Have at least one person to reach out to.
    I suggest that everyone should have at least one contact in their phone that they feel comfortable reaching out to when having a particularly low day.  Ask that person if they are willing to be an active listener when you need them.  If you don’t have a friend like that or they’re unavailable, you could consider reaching out to Certified Listeners (https://certifiedlisteners.org/) for support, or a Crisis Line if needed (Kids Help Phone has been accepting calls and texts from adults too, since the start of COVID).

What are your top three long-term tips for coping with pandemic or seasonal depression?

  • Break the depression cycle.  A common occurrence with depression is that a vicious cycle will begin where one will avoid people and activities due to low mood and fatigue, but in turn their low mood will then perpetuate and even worsen due to the avoidance.  To break this cycle, it can help to think about things one used to enjoy, asking “What are some things I did before I was depressed that brought joy or meaning to my life?”  The goal is to gradually start to reintroduce positive activities into your life, even if you don’t feel like it.  Start by forcing yourself to do just one thing.  Rating your mood before and after the activity can help you become aware of what activities are the biggest mood boosters. 
  • Increasing your social support network. The pandemic has made in-person contact difficult, but social connection is crucial nonetheless. A few ideas to think about are:
    • Plan a weekly or monthly phone or video chat with an old friend or a family member you’ve lost touch with that will allow you to reconnect. 
    • Join an online support community like Togetherall: https://togetherall.com/en-ca/
    • Talk to a therapist and know that there’s no shame in this.  Even therapists have therapists!
  • Start a gratitude practice. Gratitude is one of the greatest tools for helping one shift to a more positive mindset. Rather than dwelling on all the things that are going wrong, force yourself to come up with three good things every night before you go to bed and write those down. It can be challenging at first, but the more you practice the more natural it’ll feel and the more you’ll start to notice good things in your life with less effort. And these don’t need to be huge life-changing things- it could be something like you found a new show you liked on Netflix!

What is some advice you have for friends and family members of people battling pandemic/seasonal depression?

Validation of feelings is so important.  It’s common for people to convey a “look on the bright side” attitude when a loved one is feeling down, but that’s generally not helpful.  It’s also not usually helpful to give advice.  Simply saying something like “I can tell you’re having a tough day” or “It seems like you’re really sad today” will help the person feel noticed and heard.  It’s also important to remind loved ones that we’ll be there for them and we love them no matter what they’re feeling.  But then you can gently ask what you might do to support them in feeling better, or if they might be up for doing something together to lift their mood- such as taking a walk or watching a funny movie. 

How can someone alter their living space to be a more positive home to be in?

Redecorating and enhancing your space can be a huge mood booster, and this is even more important now that many of us are working from home.  A few things to consider doing are:

  • Decluttering and organizing
  • Thinking about what colours, textures, scents, and lighting you could add to enhance your spaces.  A new coat of paint or adding artwork or lamps can make a huge difference!  If funds are tight, check out Marketplace for deals. 
  • Consider things that’ll heighten sensory awareness (letting the sun shine in through the windows, burning a scented candle, playing soothing music)
  • Finding a way to bring aspects of nature into the home (plants, flowers, a fish tank). 

You can learn more about Angie and her practice here and book a virtual appointment with her here. She is currently taking clients who reside in Ontario.

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