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Struggling with the winter blues? 5 pieces of advice to cope from a local expert

This article appears in the January issue of  400 Life Magazine

When the pandemic first started to take hold in the country in March, many leaned on nature for help through an unpredictable situation.

Families had socially-distanced visits with each other in their front yards, couples started to have small, backyard weddings, residents walked around their neighborhoods and local restaurants offered outdoor seating.

Spending more time outside with loved ones quickly became part of the new normal.

As it has started to get colder, however, nature has fallen into its usual gloomy season. Winter can be a challenging time for many, with or without a pandemic, whether it is because of something more serious such as seasonal affective disorder or simply from a feeling of being cooped up indoors.

400 Life spoke with Dr. Brad Hieger, a licensed psychologist and the Clinical Services Director at Focus Forward Counseling and Consulting, about how to continue with the new normal and climb out of those gloomy moments this winter.


Live in the moment

Thinking about how individuals can lead a healthier lifestyle this winter, Hieger said he has grown concerned about how many are looking ahead for happiness.

Especially with headlines about the COVID-19 vaccine being released, Hieger said the country, and many across the world, are in this waiting and watching period, hoping to see change as soon as they can.

“While it’s incredibly encouraging and gives people something to look forward to, looking ahead can also exacerbate present distress because one of the reasons why we get unhappy is we notice a gap between what is and what we would like it to be,” Hieger said. “And the bigger that gap is, the more distress we often feel.”

He said he has noticed more individuals during the pandemic falling into this mindset that they have to wait for something to happen for them to feel happy again — whether that is for the pandemic to be over, schools and offices to be fully open again or for a chance to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Hieger said focusing on the future can often keep people from finding moments that make them feel happy in the present or from finding ways to “move in a meaningful direction.”

To help, he recommended taking part in mindfulness exercises to try to shift attention more to the moment.


Prioritize social needs

If there is one aspect of the pandemic everyone can agree has been one of the hardest to get through, it’s the distance from friends and family.

Although it has been more difficult to come together, especially as winter has come and limited outdoor activities, Hieger said it is important to always keep up that social support and connectedness.

Even if it means having to get creative and connect online, through social media or applications like Zoom or Skype, having others to joke around with, spend Friday night dinners together and just have fun with is “paramount.”

“The social support is often the bedrock of everybody’s emotional health, and it has to be prioritized,” Hieger said.


Take care of the basics

Coming out of all of the stress from 2020, it can be easy to forget about focusing on simple things like getting enough sleep, managing anxiety and exercising regularly — activities that promote wellness and can lead to both a healthier body and mind.

“It does produce this vicious cycle of, ‘Because I’m stressed now, I don’t have the energy or motivation to do this, so I’ll wait for that feeling to pass,’” Hieger said. “But sometimes when we wait, it perpetuates and it doesn’t pass.”

He said tasks can become more strenuous and time-consuming when individuals are dealing with negative feelings or thoughts.

“And so self-care does have to be prioritized, and when it’s moved to the top of the list, it helps people through some of that stress,” Hieger said.


Look for small moments

It’s important to find those moments that bring joy, especially during a crisis. It might seem harder to find those moments through chaos and uncertainty.

Hieger said it’s important to pay closer attention to the small moments, finding happiness in the mundane “instead of looking for big wins.”

He said his clients have found mood trackers and journals to be helpful in keeping track of feelings. Gratitude journals specifically force individuals to look for small moments of happiness.

“And when you look for them, you usually start finding them,” Hieger said.

“It’s not unusual that people in a low mood will self-access and say, ‘Well, things have stunk and they continue to stink,’ because that’s the overarching mood state,” Hieger said. “But then when they have some numbers to back it up, they might realize, [they have] 30% fewer symptoms than ... three weeks ago. Things are getting better.”


Seeking extra help

Even after following online advice and taking moments away from the stress, sometimes reaching out for additional support from a therapist or psychologist can be helpful, especially when struggling to get over a mental hurdle.

“We are seeing people reach out for therapy after they’ve delayed it for other reasons, and hopefully some degree of competent, professional help can help people bridge that gap and get through the difficult [winter] season,” Hieger said.

Psychology Today includes a tool on its website that allows users to type in their city or zip code and find therapists and treatment centers in their communities.

During a mental health emergency, individuals can call the Georgia Crisis and Access Line at 1-800-715-4225 or, if they feel more comfortable texting with a counselor rather than calling on the phone, they can text ‘Home’ to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities also has a Georgia COVID-19 Emotional Support Line for those struggling with loneliness and stress as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Residents can reach that line at 866-399-8938.