How to Beat the Wintertime Blues

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By Kate Bishop and Randall Leonard, LCSW-C
The Center for LGBTQ Health Equity

The wintertime blues can be a very real and very difficult experience for many, draining our energy and cutting us off from sources of support just when we need them the most. But there ways to cope and find brightness and joy even in the colder months.

Kate Bishop, Education Coordinator for The Center for LGBTQ Health Equity, and Randall Leonard LCSW-C, a staff therapist with the Center, recently discussed how to beat the wintertime blues:

Kate Bishop: Randall, I know you’ve seen a number of clients recently who’ve been struggling with mood and motivation. What is it about this time of year that has such a strong effect on our mental well-being?

Randall Leonard:  Our natural instincts encourage us to shelter and insulate during the winter months. Our mood may hit a lull as the dropping temps encourage us to hibernate. Thing is, societal expectations pressure us to perform the same way during the winter as we do in the warmer months. This incongruence between what our bodies naturally want and what is expected of us can really feel off-putting.

Plus, we are social creatures who are still adjusting to multiple years of survival and loss during this pandemic. We’ve been forced to endure losses of loved ones, cycles of isolation, and even the closing of major social access points. It’s a lot to endure, really.

KB: You said it! The resilience of human beings amazes me, but everyone has a breaking point. What are some warning signs of serious depression I should look for, in myself and others?

RL:  Many people are aware of the classic signs – low mood, irritability, anxiety, anhedonia (lack of interest in things that normally cause pleasure). I think it’s also important to look at avoidance and numbness too. Many people may just say, “I’m fine” when they are struggling. It takes energy to even do a mental self-assessment, and our bodies can be good at staying the path to the point where we may not even be able to tell if something is off. Especially if we have been conditioned to hide weaknesses or vulnerabilities.

KB:  So even though auto-pilot mode can be helpful, it can also mask our deeper needs. COVID has been a tough road for everyone, but I see an extra heaviness among queer and trans folks here in Year Three. Not having that energizing social contact, the opportunity to flirt, dance, organize, play and be with our community! It can wear us down over time, especially for those living in situations where who they may be unseen or disrespected.

RL: I’m going to speak as a Black non-binary individual – I often find the pressure to perform uses so much energy. Sometimes I feel myself code-switching in settings that finds my Blackness unsafe. Other times, I’ve been able to catch when my intuition is doing its thing and scanning my surroundings for threats against me. Many times these defenses happen without me even knowing, but they still take up energy. And during the colder months, I already don’t have a lot of energy to work with.  

Shawna Murray-Browne describes the importance of “rooted village” for Black folx – we heal through the connection to others with shared lived experiences and lineage. I’ve seen this work time and time again. But in winter isolation, especially with the pandemic, it becomes easier to get lost in our heads -- all while having less energy and motivation to socialize within our rooted village.

KB: “Rooted village” is such a powerful concept. We heal ourselves as we heal and hold one another. Our communities are still there, even under the masks and beneath the snow. Do you have ideas for how LGBTQ people can take action to try to get through these months? 

RL: I’m reminded of bell hooks, rest in Power. “Queer” means a person who “…has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.” Our unique strength is in how we can innovate and create. One way to boost resilience is to prioritize creative expression. Spiritual work, anything from prayer to singing to reading Tarot cards, helps us to get perspective. Human connection is also a wonderful medicine. Checking in with chosen family or sharing media accounts to help others helps us feel less isolated.

Exercise is often discussed as a magic cure for the blues in ways that can be polarizing or even unavailable. Also, we need to consider those who have limited movement ability. Thinking of movement as “embodiment activities” can be particularly motivating for Queer folx. You can take a walk and check in on your favorite tree a few blocks away, or get in some good stimming, or practice your voguing. Your passion may already have some type of exercise attached to it.

Don’t underestimate the power of rest! Recently a proud Black woman reminded me that my ancestors endured in the hopes that I could have the chance to rest in ways that they couldn’t. I’m not going to squander that – I’m not going to feel guilty when I need to take time for myself.

KB: Thanks for this insightful conversation Randall, it has lifted my spirits! Last question – what should LGBTQ people consider in seeking professional mental health assistance?

RL: One of the things I’ve been very impressed with in our community is how individuals have created their own support networks within the community to assist one another. I really honor building trust amidst people with shared experiences to support one another.

However, there’s no weakness in needing professional mental health services too. I believe in liberation practices that hold a person’s lived experiences as a form of expertise. If you’re not feeling seen in your authenticity with a provider, it’s perfectly ok to either let them know or ask them to assist with finding another provider that’ll better align with your needs. I always remind people that there are multiple experts in the therapy room – I am just another human with training and the will to assist. But those sitting across from me, in person or across the telehealth screen, are experts in the relationships they have with themselves.

For more about The Center for LGBTQ Health Equity and its programs, visit www.lgbtqhealthequity.org