Winter Blues: Ways to Prevent Relapse This Time of Year

Winter Blues by Jason SImpkins

The Holidays Are Over, It Is Still Winter, Now What? Ways to Prevent Relapse This Time of Year

It is now that time of year: the decorations came down a while ago; any thoughts of sales, shopping, or even venturing out of the house are long gone; even the folks who work in retail have finished their holiday parties by now; and it is still dark, bitter cold (at least in Michigan), and isolating. This is the time of year when people will begin to struggle, whether it is with an addiction, or with maintaining their mental health and well-being, or even with their physical and spiritual health. That means this is the time of year to start paying attention to those early warning signs of trouble, and as hard as it is to be motivated when it is 5 below 0, to take some basic steps to prevent a relapse or any other issue.

This Time of Year

First off, let’s talk about this time of year. Several times a year I read an article online or in a newspaper about “the holiday blues.” I want to say very clearly there is NO research supporting increased suicide rates, relapses, or hospitalizations around the holiday season. The Center for Disease Control notes that suicide and relapse rates traditionally are the lowest around November and December. This does not mean that relapses do not happen or that no one is suicidal; no it just means that it is less than any other time of year. To put it another way, remember what that time of year is often like, people to see, traveling, shopping, baking, working more, people are too distracted for relapses of any kind, which is helpful in general.

Now that the idea of “the holiday blues” is out of the way, the other thing to keep in mind is what this time of year is actually like. Think to every late January, February, and maybe March depending on where you are from, and what that time of year is like. Dark. Cold. Bleak. Isolating. Cabin fever. Lifeless. Little sunlight, little time outside, little social interaction, and little self-care can take someone who may be doing well in life, and put that person on the road to relapse or suicide if proactive steps are not taken. As seen in nature, this is a very hard time of year, and the animals that stay and survive throughout the winter and into spring are often planning in advance, and taking the necessary steps so that they do survive.

What To Do

One thing that is common among substance use disorders, mental health concerns, and physical health concerns, is that the problem starts well before it is a problem. The relapse, as one example, starts when a support group meeting is missed because the person was too tired, then another meeting is missed, then a phone call to catch up with friends who used, then a relapse is in full swing. Out of everything in this article, the most important tip or piece of information is this: simply pay attention to yourself and your body.

That may seem silly to read. After all we pay attention to our bodies and our thoughts every day. I, for example, know right now I am hungry, and that it is close to lunch time. I know I am tired because school was cancelled today due to the weather, so I had to get my daughter up and to a sitter much earlier than normal. And I know that I am nervous about driving as I have some errands that must be done today, but the roads are icy. The answer is that paying attention to ourselves and our decisions requires much more than simple awareness of how we are feeling right now. Paying attention also means keeping track of things that have happened, and then imagining what is likely to happen from our choices today. Being mindful and aware is a skill that takes practice, but will be a great tool to have for many different situations.

How does one become more aware of oneself and one’s decisions?  Well let’s start with some simple and practical habits to get into, in order to pay more attention to life.

  • Start by keeping a journal. I cannot emphasize this one enough. Getting the thoughts out of your head and onto paper/a screen is relieving often and can help organize thoughts, but it also helps you track what you have been thinking and feeling and doing.
  • Take 5 minutes each day to just sit quietly. That is all, just 5 minutes. No distractions. Take that time to just sit and breathe slowly and deeply. And then pay attention to the thoughts you have while doing so.
  • Stop and ask yourself “why?”. Take a moment to ask why am I doing this? What will this do for me? And then ask yourself, “Is this going to help me or is this going to hinder me in the long run?”
  • Last thing is to notice the oddities or the exceptions that happen. This tip may also require immediate action depending on what you notice. For example, if your left arm is hurting for no discernible reason, that is something to take notice of, and look into further by going to the ER or calling your doctor.

Oftentimes, solutions and fixes to situations will come simply out of noticing that there is a problem. So do not doubt yourself if there is a healthy solution you see that is not written here. First just pay attention, and the answers will come out of that alone quite frequently.

There are some other things to bring up, more specific to time of year and relapse prevention of any kind, whether it is substance use, mental illness, or physical illness. First, as may be obvious, this is the time of year with some of the least sunlight, which is a necessity for humans to function on many levels, but sunlight also functions as a mood enhancer. Take as much time as you can out in the sun, being outside as much as reasonable. If that is not an option, there are Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) lights available that mimic sunlight, available at medical supply stores. Being outside also gives us the opportunity to get some exercise and have some fun as well, for example skiing or having a snowball fight can provide enough exercise to help elevate the mood and lessen any mental distress going on.

The next thing to note may sound like again something that everyone just does normally, but it is an important reminder: take time to eat, time to sleep and rest, and time to shower, and do all this every day. People in crisis mode or in distress often do not “feel” tired or “feel” like eating. That is certainly believable and happens more often than one may think, but doing those three things is vital to maintaining sobriety as well as good physical and mental well-being. Also, on the physical side of things is another reminder; if any medication is prescribed, take it as prescribed, even if it does not feel like it is working. It is important to stay in contact with your doctor in that regard.

One last thing to point out, considering a lot of the focus of this article has been on awareness. Suicide rates traditionally go up in the spring time, typically when people who are struggling get enough energy from increased activity and sunlight, and the physiological benefits from them, that they have the effort to actually make a suicide attempt. If suicide is a thought you are having there is help out there for you. Do not keep these thoughts to yourself; talk to your doctor, your therapist, your clergy, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Final Thoughts

Taking care of yourself is vital to any rehabilitation program. While understanding and awareness are two important pieces of the puzzle, figuring out what works for you and what is most helpful is part of that picture as well. Being mindful, asking yourself, “Why am I doing this,” and then “Is this healthy or helpful to me” will go a long way in staying happy and healthy in this new year.


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