Winter is coming: COVID fatigue is merging with winter blues and SAD

Exhaustion from COVID-19 is made worse by cold, darkness and diminished holidays


Brace yourselves. Here comes COVID fatigue: the winter chapter. 

Make the most of the holiday season with your household family.
Make the most of the holiday season with your household family.

As if our communal weariness with COVID-19 weren’t bad enough, now we’re about to face the bleak realities of subdued holiday celebrations and record-setting, frightening surges in coronavirus cases – compounded by the cold, wet and dark days of winter.

Experts worry that winter will make COVID fatigue worse. And that COVID fatigue plus winter will be especially hard for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a winter-borne depression that affects 5% of people at a clinical level but touches many more.

“It’s as if there are new reasons for stress and gloominess every season,” said Kaye Hermanson, UC Davis Health clinical psychologist in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Even before the harshest winter weather has come, we’re already facing new anxieties and emotional loss.

The weeks of late fall and early winter are often our “over the river and through the woods” season of rekindling friendships, reuniting with family and celebrating the energy and good feelings around the holidays – which help fortify our emotional resilience for the sometimes challenging months of deep winter.

“Honestly, I can’t say the next few months won’t be hard for many people. If I have one simple piece of advice, it’s this: Think about all that we’ve already endured. Just hang on for a few more months.”

— Kaye Hermanson

“Instead, many of us will be grieving for the loss of the holidays and because we miss seeing friends and family,” Hermanson said. “For a lot of people, holiday celebrations are what get us through the start of winter.”

Add in the likelihood of renewed social restrictions as we face an unprecedented surge of COVID-19. They are hitting just as we get good news about vaccines, which won’t likely be widely available until spring.

“Honestly, I can’t say the next few months won’t be hard for many people,” Hermanson said. “If I have one simple piece of advice, it’s this: Think about all that we’ve already endured. Just hang on for a few more months. Keep telling yourself, ‘This is a moment in time.’”

The winter chapter of COVID fatigue mixes exhaustion and resentment

“Your brain can only maintain a heightened level of anxiety for a certain time,” Hermanson said. “Our brains have been on high alert for months and months, making us feel on edge, disrupting sleep patterns, changing our appetites. After a while, we normalize those feelings. Then our brains start to rationalize the pandemic as not so worrisome.”

So, it’s hard to keep believing that COVID-19 is as dangerous as we are told. That can make us depressed about our situation and resentful about restrictions – especially now when those restrictions are tightening.

“We have to fight that feeling,” she said. “People look for evidence to support what they want to believe, and they ignore what they don’t want to hear. So some people have been seeing a few activities opening or they see sports on TV, and they convince themselves things are better and it’s OK to socialize more.”

In fact, things are worse. Gov. Gavin Newsom said this week that California is seeing COVID-19 spread faster than in any time of the pandemic. It’s so bad, he’s considering a curfew. Much of the U.S. is setting daily records for new coronavirus cases.

“We can feel so powerless when we hear those kinds of frightening numbers,” Hermanson said. “One thing you can do to give yourself a little sense of control is to make a commitment: Just do the things you have control over to keep yourself and your friends and family as safe as possible.”

COVID fatigue meets the holidays – tips for coping

“This may be difficult for many people,” Hermanson said, “but try to keep some positive mindfulness in your life.”

“What we’re dealing with is historic. Instead of letting it all go by, look around, be proud of how you’ve adapted and of everything you’ve done right. Think about what you’ll say when you look back.”

— Kaye Hermanson

One good example: Mark this holiday season as one you will always talk about.

“What we’re dealing with is historic,” she said. “Instead of letting it all go by, look around, be proud of how you’ve adapted and of everything you’ve done right. Think about what you’ll say when you look back.”

She suggested documenting this season with photos of “Thank you heroes” signs or selfies with masks.

“Remember, there are many others who are apart at the holidays by choice or obligation, now and in the past,” she said. “Think of all the military families. Do what they do – stand tall for your country, protect your community and wear a mask and social distance.”

A few more holiday coping tips:

  • Don’t give up on the holidays: “You can still decorate. You can still cook or bake, if you like that,” Hermanson said. “Embrace the holidays at home, however you observe or celebrate them.”
  • Keep your social connections: Have virtual toasts and parties. “We should be pretty practiced at that by now,” she said. “If you need a mood boost, call or conference someone. Any socializing, even virtual, boosts our mood. We can still talk and laugh with friends, as always.”
  • Keep your family connections: “Tell the people you love, how much you love them,” she said. “That makes them feel good and it makes you feel good.”
  • Reflect with gratitude: Take the time to think about about what is important to you during the holiday season this year and every year.
  • Get outside and enjoy the day: Weather permitting.
  • Drive around with those in your household and look at lights: There may be even more houses decorated this year. “It’s hard to think of a more COVID-19 safe thing to do,” Hermanson said.
  • Check in on what you’re feeling: “Remember, a lot of depression comes up around the holidays in any year,” Hermanson said. “Many people struggle because their holiday doesn’t look like a Norman Rockwell painting. It helps, especially this year, to be aware of those feelings.”
  • Plan an alternative holiday in the future: “Maybe you can have the holidays in July,” she said.
  • Spread the love: “Probably, the best thing you can do to make yourself, and someone else, feel better, is to do something nice for someone,” Hermanson said. “Pay it forward any way you can. Maybe it’s a small gesture or donation, if you can afford it. Maybe it’s finding a way to volunteer. It can be as simple as telling someone how much they mean to you.”

The safest holiday celebrations are virtual for a few month months.

COVID fatigue meets SAD – tips for coping

“I’m worried for a lot more people this year,” Hermanson said. “Normally, we tend to think, ‘Oh, winter will be cozy. We’ll snuggle up at home.’ Now, that doesn’t sound so appealing.”

SAD affects many people in varying degrees as they deal with less sunlight and fewer chances to be outside. For some people, it may be their biological clocks are thrown off by the shorter days. For others, a drop in sunlight plays a direct role.

“Sunlight is good for us in winter,” Hermanson said. “It helps keep up our level of serotonin (a neurotransmitter, or brain chemical, that can raise our mood). Try to get outside when you can, though that gets harder as it gets darker, cloudier and rainier. Just keep telling yourself, this is still California. It could be much worse.

Or, she suggested, borrow a Nordic approach to winter.

“I’ve been hearing a lot lately about Friluftsliv,” she said. “It’s a Scandinavian philosophy that encourages residents to get outside and keep moving – no matter the temperature – because being outside is good for your psyche.”

More tips for coping with SAD:

  • Exercise: “I say this over and over: Exercise is still the No. 1 best thing we can do for coping,” she said. “It releases endorphins and gets some of the adrenaline out when the frustration builds up. Just go for a walk, if you can. If it’s too cold or wet, put on a workout or yoga video. It helps so much.”
  • Consider light therapy: “There are light boards you can buy,” Hermanson said. “We usually recommend these for people who have clinical experiences with SAD, but this year, they may be worth a try for anyone. They do seem to make a difference in what neurotransmitters get released in our bodies.”
  • Practice mindfulness and emotional resilience (part 1): “We won’t be able to do that every moment of every day,” she said. “It’s OK to have a bad day. Everyone else will be having them, too. But you can work on it. There are apps for that, and you can also connect with help from a mental health professional.”
  • Practice mindfulness and emotional resilience (part 2): “This is what I’m telling myself: ‘Just hang in there. We’re getting closer. This won’t last forever,’” Hermanson said. “Try to practice resilience regularly. For instance, I’m starting each day with some deep breathing and sending some thoughts of gratitude to someone else.”
  • Be compassionate with yourself: Just accept there will be times when things go wrong or you’ll feel bad. “Nobody prepared us for this,” Hermanson said. “There wasn’t a class in high school called ‘How to Get Through a Pandemic.’ We’re all figuring this out as we go.”
  • Look for reasons to laugh: “As odd as it seems, you might have to work to do this sometimes,” Hermanson said. “But there is a healthy physical reaction to laughing.”
  • Look for joy: “I keep a list on my phone of movies I love, books I love, other things I love,” she said. “When I need it, I pull it out and say, ‘What on this list can I do?’ When you’re down, distractions like a good movie or TV show can be very helpful.”

COVID fatigue coping for all seasons – talk with someone

Exercise and sunshine are two of the best ways to ease COVID fatigue and SAD.

“Please don’t just sit on your depression,” Hermanson said. “That only makes you feel worse. Just saying it out loud is important. Find the right places and times, but talk about it.”

Talking with family or a friend can be a big help. And sometimes people need something more and want to talk with a trained counselor. If starting counseling feels stressful, drop into a virtual group session.

“That’s another good thing that’s happened during the pandemic. There are many more virtual tools for people who’d like a little help,” Hermanson said. “You can just listen and get a sense that you aren’t alone. Or you can speak up when you’re comfortable.”

A number of organizations offer group sessions for their employees, including UC Davis Health. Some public sites where you can find groups or referrals include the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Sacramento branch of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.