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Tips on beating the holiday and winter blues

As with seemingly everything these days, there is misinformation clogging social media feeds and websites about Americans’ emotional well-being during the holidays, especially false reports that suicide rates spike in December.

The National Institute of Mental Health, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have reported that suicide rates are actually lower during the holidays than at other times of the year. The highest rates are in the spring rather than the winter.

But there’s no doubt that it can be a difficult time emotionally for many people. According to research conducted by the American Psychological Association, nearly 40% of people surveyed found a sharp boost in severe stress over time pressures, financial worries, the commercialization of the holidays — which bring pressures over gift giving — and negative family issues accelerating around this time of year.

Social workers Nancy Green and Bonnie Stockwell, who have been running bereavement groups on Shelter Island and will begin a new group in 2022, noted that those grieving the loss of a loved one can see their suffering increase around the holidays. Ms. Green and Ms. Stockwell said that, for those whose loss is more recent, the pain can be especially sharp.

The social workers said that working through grief is highly individual and unpredictable, with no rules or time frames. But all who are feeling at a low ebb during a season of light and happiness, can tap into a loving community, where people check in on each other, drop food by, or express caring through a phone call or note. Both women said Shelter Island is that community.

Islander Bruce Saul, LCSW-R, a clinical social worker and psychotherapist, also said that the loss of a loved one “is the most difficult emotional stressor” during the holidays. (Mr. Saul noted that he is not currently scheduling new clients.)

And it’s not just recent losses, but “the same is often true over several years, as we never truly get over the losses of loved ones. But we get through it as time passes and we come to an acceptance,” Mr. Saul said. “Their physical absence is experienced more acutely in these times and the grief can be excruciating.”

For those who live alone, isolation can be a kind of grief at this time of year.

Mr. Saul pointed out that Shelter Island has, to a large extent, a seasonal economy. Many residents work in the hospitality industry, construction, property maintenance, landscaping and other service-related fields, which slow down during winter, leaving many people with a lot of time on their hands.

Add to that “less opportunity for outdoor activities or recreation after school or work can affect us mentally as well as physically,” he added. “This may lead to ‘winter doldrums’ or seasonal affective disorder related to limited exposure to sunlight during this time of year.”

Seasonal Affective Disorder, with the apt acronym “SAD,” can be a serious ailment. According to WebMD, “Sensitivity to the lack of sunlight that results from winter’s shorter days disrupts our circadian rhythm, or internal body clock.

The degree of this sensitivity, and resulting winter depression severity, largely stems from some combination of other factors — your geography, genetics, and individual brain chemistry.”

Medical experts recommend the importance of keeping to a regular routine, following specific times of the day to eat, work on projects, exercise, and especially a regular bedtime, to help keep the inner clock running smoothly.

Strategies to overcome emotional lows during the holidays and winter include focusing on self-care, Mr. Saul said, “By putting our healthy adult self in charge of our lives and situations, using both our inner and outer resources. Self-care is the foundation for maintaining optimal health and well-being.”

Be vigilant about maintaining contact with friends through phone calls and emails and use community resources to be with people, he added, “Our local library is a great resource for all, providing the opportunity to socialize and explore your current interests or to find new interests.”

Getting up and out is essential, and the Island affords many trails and scenic walks. “Being in nature is a healing experience. Walking is therapy in itself,” Mr. Saul said. “Go out for a walk, and upon returning you’ll find renewed gratitude for home and refreshed in mind.”

Self-care also means cutting yourself some breaks, the therapist added, which is especially important for those caring for children or other family members. “Be kind to yourself and nurture your body, mind and soul,” he said. “You have to be whole and well in order to be there for others.”

Winter sunrise in the Center. (Credit: Ambrose clancy)