While the winter season brings beloved traditions of skiing, sleigh bells and Santas for many, it also means declining daylight, cold temperatures and increased isolation.
Those latter factors are enough to create mental health challenges for people. Shorter daylight hours can trigger seasonal affective disorder, and anxiety disorders and depression may surface.
Factor in the additional emotional and financial strains caused by the continuing COVID-19 pandemic this year, and it’s no wonder that people might be feeling extraordinarily down, local mental health specialists said.
Any loss can result in a grieving period, and this year there are many forms: furloughs and lost jobs, struggling or shuttered businesses, canceled travel plans, hobbies put on hold, lost learning and classroom connections, and “virtual” but still isolating family get-togethers.
Martinez said this level of loss can cause people to ask themselves some difficult questions, such as “What exactly is happening to me? Can I survive this, and do I even want to? How long will this last? Are these feelings normal?” and “Am I going crazy?” Those questions don’t always have immediate answers, which only adds to people feeling lost, he added.
Matthew Bogoyas, a psychiatric specialist and medical director for Comprehensive Healthcare, noted that the change in basic activity levels is generally difficult for people.
“It can be very challenging for people to isolate, and that it’s continued for nine months hasn’t helped,” Bogoyas said.
Winter holidays across a variety of faith traditions hold messages that the daylight will return, the season will pass, and there is always reason to hope.
Help is available in Yakima, and there is hope, counselors said.
One day at a time
Bogoyas’ advice for people struggling with the uncertainty of this season is to focus on one day at a time.
“You have to take life as it comes, whether there is a pandemic or not,” he said. “It’s also good to have something to work towards, to set and to have realistic goals.”
Ladonna Chambard, an administrator at Comprehensive Home Health, said sticking to established routines can help people reclaim a sense of stability and security in uncertain times. She also spoke to goals’ ability to give people back a sense of purpose.
“One of the things that COVID has taken away from people is that sense of purpose,” she said. “Creating a list of daily goals that you can check off by the end of the day can help with that sense of purpose that is so valuable.”
But she also spoke to the need to set reasonable and reachable goals and added that those goals might look a lot different now than they would without COVID-19 in the picture.
“Long term goals need to be a little more ambiguous,” she said. “For example, you might say that ‘By the end of next year, I want to be in a better place than I am today.’ It gives you room, for when there is an opportunity, to get more specific.”
Specific dates for goals can be reserved for smaller goals, she said, such as “By 9 a.m. today, I want to get through all my payroll information.”
Martinez noted that people who are dealing with loss often set goals they think are realistic or simple but then can’t complete them. He encouraged people to accept those setbacks as part of their journeys.
“Loss is unique. Your journey is unique,” he said. “There is no taking steps backward. I hear from people who had a rough day that they failed. No. It’s a part of your journey and a part of moving forward.”
Chambard also said that setbacks, viewed with perspective, can become opportunities.
“It can be as much of a benefit to not reach those small goals, because it gives you a chance to reflect and think about what triggered it to become a bad day, or whether the goal was realistic.”
Above all, people must be gentle with themselves and take care of themselves, Martinez said.
“This means get things done when having a good day,” he said. “If you are having a bad day, take the day off. Taking care of yourself also means getting the sleep you need.”
Get helpBogoyas noted that changes in mood are normal. It’s OK to have a bad day, or a string of sad days. But when peoples’ moods start impacting their ability to function — to get out of bed or get dressed, or to pay bills or take care of other responsibilities — then it’s time to seek help, he added.
He also noted that it’s sometimes easier for people on the outside to notice changes in behavior than it is for the person experiencing those changes. People who notice changes, even nuanced changes, in loved ones or coworkers shouldn’t be afraid to check in, he said.
Bogoyas added that while many people find it difficult to acknowledge they need help and to reach out for it, that acceptance starts the healing.
“You have to accept what’s going on in your life at the moment,” he said. “The biggest benefit is an improvement in your ability to function and your mental state. If you’re always fighting and striving for what you can’t have, you’ll never be happy.”
Both Bogoyas and Martinez emphasized that mental health illness is an illness, not a weakness or a moral failing or a lack of faith, and trained professionals are willing and ready to help.
“A lot of people are not aware of the help that is out there,” Martinez said. “In order to tackle life, you have to embrace the journey of healing. At the end of the day, we want to walk with people on those journeys.”