Stephanie McGary is ready for spring. At her home in the northern Maine town of Amity, the water pipes have frozen at least six times. McGary returned from work earlier this week to find 5 inches of water in her basement, drenching most of the wood for her wood stove. During the recent ice storm, the automatic locks in her car froze, in the locked position, while the car was running and she was standing outside the vehicle.
“I’m going to need counseling after all this,” joked McGary, 26, who’s finishing her bachelor’s degree in mental health and human services through the University of Maine at Augusta.
And she’s not alone.
Frozen pipes. Power outages. Leaky roofs. Travel snarls. Car accidents. Slips and falls on the ice. Mainers are accustomed to wintertime hassles, but even the toughest among us are growing weary after days of of subzero temperatures and snowstorms.
“Things piling up, as they have, literally, over the past week can obviously increase our stress level,” said Alan Bean Burpee, a licensed clinical social worker at Counseling Services Inc. in Biddeford.
At Burpee’s office, a major water main broke, flooding the computer server room and leaving employees without phone or Internet service for several days, he said.
“We’ll pick up and do our best with what we have,” Bean Burpee said, speaking by cellphone.
For many, the pile-on of wintertime problems strikes at an already difficult time of year. Fewer hours of sunlight, too many hours stuck indoors, and the stresses of the holidays can combine to make wintertime challenging for our mental health. For some, the winter blahs escalate into seasonal affective disorder.
“Research has shown that sometimes people are more susceptible to depression and just feeling not as good as normal when winter comes along,” said Dr. Anthony Ng, chief medical officer at The Acadia Hospital in Bangor.
While weather-related home damage, injuries and inconveniences also crop up during the rest of the year, we’re often more limited in fixing those problems during the winter, he said. That loss of control — say, waiting for the ground to thaw to repair a cracked foundation — just adds to the stress, he said.
“If you have a leaky roof and then the basement gets water in it or your windows froze up, all that seems like a lot for someone to deal with all at the same time,” Ng said.
Plus our go-to stress relievers, such as getting together with friends or exercising outside, may not be an option with bad weather, Bean Burpee said. That can lead to isolation, further exacerbating winter-weather fatigue.
With one problem after another, it’s easy to get stuck in a loop of negative thoughts that can lead to depressed feelings, Bean Burpee said.
“In therapy we refer to that as ‘stinking thinking’ … We don’t always think about it as, ‘Oh wow, it’s amazing how often things go right.’ We notice it when they don’t.”
McGary’s staying positive, saying this winter, while tough, has nonetheless made her more independent and a better problem-solver, though she has relied on family for help.
“I just take it one day at a time,” she said. “There’s not much more you can do … We just try to laugh through it.”
Some tips for staying sunny even when the weather isn’t:
— Try to maintain your routine. No small feat when you’re pumping water out of your basement or showering at the neighbor’s house.
“Our routines are really powerful,” Bean Burpee said. “We develop them and use them to bring comfort and stability to our day, so when that gets interrupted in some way, it’s another stressor.”
If your day’s been unavoidably upended, such as by a power outage, look for a silver lining, Ng said. Some of his colleagues bonded with their families during the Christmas outage, turning to other activities with no working TV and Internet, he said.
— Check in on neighbors, friends, and loved ones who are isolated, Bean Burpee suggested. It could lift both of your spirits.
— Take care of yourself. If it’s not too cold, walk outside, or hit the gym, Bean Burpee said. Get enough sleep and eat as well as you can to stay resilient in the face of stress, he said.
— Watch the booze. While it might prove tempting to drink up to warm up or to relieve stress, alcohol and drugs could worsen your outlook, Ng said. Slip on the ice while you’re impaired and you’ve got another problem on your hands.
— Prioritize and delegate. Figure out which problems you can address first, then work your way toward less urgent ones, Ng said. Enlist friends or family members to help out, he said.
— Limit your griping. Commiserating with others about the bad weather and attendant problems can feel reassuring, but don’t let that be all you talk about. Constant complaining can lead to “rumination,” or obsessing over negative thoughts, Bean Burpee said.
— Get help if your mood fails to improve. Mental health professionals typically say if you’ve experienced symptoms of depression for two weeks or longer, see your doctor. With this long stretch of intense winter weather, it might be tricky to tell if you’re just mentally exhausted or depressed.
Red flags include previous periods of depression, finding no relief in activities that used to bring you joy, changes in appetite and difficulty getting out of bed, Bean Burpee said. Ng added poor sleep, remarkably lower energy, irritability and difficulty concentrating.
“The most important thing is family members and friends picking that up,” Ng said. “If you’re the one in the middle of it, you may not.” Get help immediately if you have thoughts of suicide.
Maine has experienced bouts of tough winter weather before, and this stretch won’t be the last.
“Just remember, it’s temporary,” Bean Burpee said.