It’s about that time of year when the winter starts to feel like it will never end. It can take a toll on your health—and not just in the form of a bad cold or a weekend-long case of cabin fever.
About 6 percent of Americans experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)—a seasonal form of depression that usually hits in the wintertime—while up to 14 percent can have what’s commonly known as the “winter blues,” according to an interview with Norman E. Rosenthal, MD, one of the leading researchers on SAD, in the journal Psychiatry.
But what if you’ve had a life-changing illness or injury, like a traumatic brain injury or a spinal cord injury? The winter—particularly the first winter—after an illness or injury of that nature can be extremely difficult, says Dr. Heidi Spitz, the Director of Outpatient Neuropsychology at Burke.
Post-injury, people can experience feelings of isolation, especially when the cold weather makes it more difficult to leave the house or to do everyday tasks like grocery shop or go to a doctor’s appointment. For those with mobility issues who may no longer drive or are now using a wheelchair, the idea of going out in snowy or icy weather can be daunting and cause high levels of anxiety.
“During the winter, many patients tend to have that ‘left out’ feeling,” says Dr. Spitz. “They have more time by themselves and they’re more likely to feel trapped. They watch the rest of the world go on and they’re stuck. Because they can feel isolated and alone, they tend to be hijacked by their negative thoughts—and that leads to extreme unhappiness.”
The bright side? There are ways to keep those feelings at bay and make the winter easier:
Be compassionate towards yourself.
This is the most important thing you can do, says Dr. Spitz. It’s completely normal to feel sad, upset or lonely during the winter months, or to feel the loss of what you once had. Be kind to yourself and know that with time, you’ll begin to adjust to your new normal and gain a new perspective, she says.
Learning to stay in the present moment is helpful in preventing negative thought patterns. “Instead of focusing on the past or the future, try to focus on right now and on ‘what it the best thing I can do right now for myself,’” she says.
Try to take time every day to focus on the positive and on what you’re grateful for. Dr. Spitz even advises her patients to pencil the practice into their calendar so they remember to do it and so that it eventually simply becomes part of their daily routine.
The idea of leaving the house might seem scary, but by planning ahead, you are more likely to be successful. Consider the time of day you feel your best—maybe you have the most energy in the morning, for instance—and how you can safely do what you want to do, such as going to the store. “Plan and organize,” says Dr. Spitz. "Make a list of things you can do and prioritize and set a structure and a routine.”
Keep it simple.
At the same time, don’t take on too much all at once. Pace yourself, avoid being overwhelmed, and focus on what you can do instead of what you can’t.
Create new traditions.
Spending time with friends and family is one of the best ways to avoid feeling isolated and lonely—but your activities might not look exactly the way they did before. And that’s ok. Instead of going out to a movie or to a party, maybe invite family over for dinner or to watch a movie or host a weekly game night with your neighbors. Not up for it? Even something as simple as calling a friend on the phone can be helpful, says Dr. Spitz.
Burke is also here to help. Along with free monthly support groups, Burke offers a number of specialized therapy groups (which may be covered by your insurance) through its outpatient neuropsychology program. These include groups for people living with debilitating medical concerns, groups for caregivers and mindfulness groups. Groups usually meet weekly and run in 10-week sessions.
-- Marisa Iallonardo