KOKOMO, Ind. — Cold weather, shorter days and minimal amounts of sunshine can make the winter season a difficult time for many.
Add in nearly a year of isolation and worries brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and there’s potential for significant increases in anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions in the first few months of 2021.
There are steps you can take to combat these issues, however, and help is just a phone call or email away. Elizabeth Barnett, licensed mental health counselor and director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Indiana University Kokomo said mental health issues are a side effect of the pandemic that isn’t discussed as much as the physical effects.
“There’s a different overall sense of anxiety in the world today,” she said. “Death tolls and positive coronavirus testing rates are being thrown at us on a daily basis. Then you add wintertime isolation.”
In some cases, a little self-care can help alleviate the impact of those stresses. However, Barnett said, if you find yourself losing interest in things you used to enjoy, sleeping all the time or not sleeping at all, or eating more or less than normal, those are signs that it could be time to reach out for help.
In other cases, giving yourself some TLC can minimize the effects — getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, connecting with people in some way, and maybe even finding a new hobby.
“The closest physical thing you can do to mimic an antidepressant is to exercise,” Barnett said. “Getting good exercise and using your body well can help you combat the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Just get up and move. Even just cleaning or running the vacuum will help you feel better. The more you move, the more you want to move.”
Barnett also suggests making a schedule, and writing in times for regular meals and sleep.
“Sometimes in a situation where we aren’t leaving our houses, it’s easy to get our personal time clocks messed up,” she said. “It’s important that we give ourselves time for enough sleep. If you don’t sleep, it inhibits your ability to recall everything you’ve learned. For our students, it’s important so what they are learning in classes is getting mentally filed away the right way.”
With no schedule, it’s also easy to graze on snacks, rather than intentionally eating good proteins, fruits, and vegetables that nourish and energize our bodies, she added.
Many people find themselves with time on their hands, after previously having packed schedules, leaving them open to trying something new, or taking on a small home improvement project.
“Winter is the perfect time to learn to play the guitar, or take a virtual tour of a national park, or learn to take excellent pictures with your phone,” she said. “Having the concentrated attention on something that has been a bucket list item actually helps with mood improvement.”
Finding ways to connect with others is vitally important, she said — and so is knowing when you’ve had enough.
“Human beings are, by nature, relational,” Barnett said. “We need each other. It’s easy to isolate yourself at home, but reach out whether it’s by Zoom or phone. Don’t feel pressured to do more than your comfort level allows, but don’t get so isolated you are alone in a vacuum. Keep taking your own emotional temperature. It’s OK to draw your own boundaries. It’s OK to stay off social media, but it’s also OK to get on and allow yourself a rant.”
IU Kokomo students can contact the CAPS office for free counseling, with appointments available virtually or in person with one of six counselors. Faculty and staff have access to free counseling through the Employee Assistance Program.
In the community, people may be connected with a counselor by calling 2-1-1, the United Way’s community information and referral hotline.