SEMBACH, Germany — With the holiday season upon us, the cold, dark days that winter brings, and the social distancing and movement restrictions brought about by COVID-19, it’s not uncommon for people to feel depressed.
Combined together, these issues have created sources of stress for most people but medical experts suggest there are ways to minimize or alleviate those symptoms.
“For starters, I recommend you limit your exposure to social media, the internet and the news,” said Lt. Col. Emile Wijnans, Director of Psychological Health for Regional Health Command Europe. “You can alleviate stress by focusing on the things that are positive in your life today, right now, and on things that you can control. Don’t focus on, or worry about, those things you cannot control. It is really wasted energy, and can lead to feeling more anxious and more down.”
“It’s important to get good, real rest, eat well, maintain hobbies, and exercise regularly,” said Wijnans. “If you do this on a daily or multiple days per week basis, common winter blahs and COVID-related anxiety will lessen and spring will be here before you know it. Most of us know this, but we fall short for the same reason 9 out of 10 New Year’s Resolutions don’t happen. We fail to create daily practices to get after our goals.”
It is also recommended by health experts that you stick to a routine, take time throughout the day to sit back and regain your perspective on things, and by all means, avoid relying on tobacco and alcohol products.
If you are feeling down and sluggish during the cold, dark days of winter, you might be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.
“People with seasonal depression have the normal symptoms associated with depression: feeling depressed most of the day and nearly every day, a lack of pleasure or interest in things that they would normally enjoy, and difficulty concentrating,” said Dr. Cheryl Owen, the Regional Manager for Substance Use Disorder Clinical Care (SUDCC) and a member of the Behavioral Health team at Regional Health Command Europe.
“It is helpful to think of the hibernation period of a bear when trying to remember the symptoms,” said Owen. “People tend to have less energy, are tired and have a greater need for sleep, they are hungrier and crave carbohydrates resulting in weight gain, and they have an increased desire to be alone.”
Owen recommends several tips to alleviate SAD and feel better throughout the winter months and changing seasons.
“Spend some time outside each day, even when it’s cloudy,” she said. “Certainly if the sun pops out, go grab it. Also think of the performance triad. Stick to a regular sleep schedule, eat healthy, and exercise at least 30 minutes five times a week. This can help some people avoid these symptoms.”
Health experts say that it’s common for people to feel blue sometimes, but when those episodes become more frequent and too much to handle alone, there are resources available to help.
“If you experience ongoing depressive symptoms, take care and do something for yourself,” Owen added. “Make an appointment with your primary care physician. It could be as simple as adding vitamins to your daily intake. Your doctor can help you figure it out. If you don’t believe it’s related to the seasonal changes, you should make an appointment with a behavioral health provider. If you have thoughts of killing yourself, please don’t keep those to yourself. People can and will help. You can tell someone you trust, go to a local hospital or behavioral health clinic or call the military crisis line.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is (800) 273-8255. The Fort Hood on-call chaplain can also be reached 24/7 at (254) 289-2531.
How does one know if they are suffering from depression and mental stress or just the blues?
According to the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, common signs of mental distress include: feelings of numbness, disbelief, anxiety or fear; changes in appetite, energy, and activity levels; difficulty concentrating; difficulty sleeping or nightmares and upsetting thoughts and images; physical reactions, such as headaches, body pains, stomach problems, and skin rashes; worsening of chronic health problems; anger or short-temper; increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs.
“If someone is drinking heavily, it can suppress their immune system,” said Dr. Owen. “We also know that people who drink often smoke as well, and that increases their risk of respiratory illness. The other issue is that drinking can also dampen your mood, so if you’re already stressed out, it’s not going to help at all.”
Medical experts indicate that isolation and stress can also create unnecessary friction points for not only married couples and those with children, but in fact, all relationships.
“Each person will have moments when they will not be at their best,” said Wijnans. “A lot of cooped up time can bring out the worst in any of us. It is important to not hold grudges that needlessly prolong disagreements. Focus on why your partner and children are important to you, strengthen the connection, and remember that most of us, most of the time, are doing the best we can in a difficult situation.”
Psychologists and other healthcare professionals also encourage you to reach out for help if needed. It is more a sign of strength and sensibility than anything else. If you feel overwhelmed, talk to a close friend or family member, health worker or counselor. Sharing your concerns and worries often lessens the weight. Make a plan of where to go and how to seek help for physical and mental health needs if required.