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By Alice Lesch Kelly
For many New Englanders, getting through our long, cold, dark winters isn’t easy. And this year, enduring winter could be tougher than ever.
“When we combine the stress of the pandemic with the stress of political and social unrest and shorter, darker days, a lot of people are feeling maxed out,” says Rachel Armstrong, Psy.D., a psychologist in Portsmouth, N.H. “We usually enter winter feeling fully charged from our summer and fall, but a lot of us are already feeling restricted in what we do.”
If the prospect of a pandemic winter is giving you chills, don’t worry: You can take steps to brighten your winter outlook and manage your mental health. Adopting some of the following coping skills can go a long way toward chasing away the cold weather blues, even during one of our most challenging winters.
Get the right amount of sleep
Getting enough sleep—typically 7 to 8 hours a night—can help you feel less stressed and more energetic and resilient. “Research continues to underscore the importance of sleep for maintaining mental health,” says Dr. Anthony Sossong, associate medical director for behavioral health at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.
If you have trouble falling asleep at night, avoid exposing yourself to blue light before bed. This is the kind of light that pours out of certain kinds of backlit tech devices, such as computers, tablets, phones, and even televisions. “That spectrum of light can promote wakefulness,” Sossong says. “But most devices have a feature that allows you to switch to a red-spectrum light that is more conducive to sleep.”
Better yet, shun screens all together for a few hours before you go to sleep. Develop a night time routine you enjoy, incorporating soothing activities like reading, meditation, journaling, or drinking decaffeinated tea.
Spend time (safely) with friends
Pandemic safety means you probably can’t socialize with friends and family the way you usually do in winter. But you’ll feel better if you find safe ways to spend time with others. “Humans are highly social creatures, and we need social support to cope with stress and promote resiliency,” says Boston psychologist Berta Summers, Ph.D. “Having a social support network is one of the biggest protective factors we have against mental health issues.”
Although safe pandemic socializing may not be as fun as gathering in a busy bar or crowded restaurant, you can still have fun doing virtual hangouts and safely distanced outdoor meetups.
Try hosting virtual game nights with the help of apps like Houseparty or watching a movie together while apart with Netflix Hangouts.
Practicing mindfulness helps you relate to stress and uncertainty with greater skill, facility, and ease. “Mindfulness is a quality of mind that is awake and aware—the opposite of when we are lost in thought,” says Tara Healey, M.ED., program director of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care’s Mind the Moment Program. “Mindfulness can decrease reactivity, increase resilience, enhance emotional intelligence, and help us see clearly how things actually are.”
You can practice mindfulness formally through meditation and informally, in your everyday life. To do it informally, try to bring full awareness to even the most mundane tasks like washing dishes, walking the dog, or showering. “For example, when you’re showering, notice the feel of the water on your skin and the scent of the soap. When your mind wanders, simply bring it back to what you’re doing,” Healey says.
To learn more about mindfulness and mindfulness meditation, Healey recommends apps from Headspace and Ten Percent Happier. Or check out the many free mindfulness resources available through Harvard Pilgrim Health Care’s Mind the Moment mindfulness training program, part of its Living Well at Home initiative. The program’s guided mindfulness sessions, open to all every Tuesday and Thursday from 8:30-9 a.m. EST via Zoom, are a great way to center yourself and start your day.
When you walk, jog, cycle, dance, play in the snow, or do other activities that get your heart pumping, your brain releases a range of neurochemicals that promote feelings of well-being. “Exercise can be as helpful for mild depression as an antidepressant,” Sossong says.
To get the feel-good benefits of exercise, you don’t have to run marathons or cycle from Boston to Worcester. “Even just a walk does a lot of good for your mental health and your physical health,” says Boston psychologist Inna Khazan, Ph.D. Or consider cultivating a new appreciation for the outdoor snowy season by trying activities like snowshoeing, skating, cross-country skiing, or sledding.
You can even sweat out seasonal stress from the comfort and safety of your home. Try joining Harvard Pilgrim Health Care’s Living Well at Home yoga, Zumba, or strength training classes via Zoom for free.
During a cold New England winter, it’s tempting to wrap yourself in a heavy blanket and hibernate inside watching TV. But going outdoors can do wonders for your mood. “It is important to get out, at least to walk, every day,” Armstrong says. “Getting sun and fresh air along with exercise is extremely beneficial.”
Sunlight can help you feel better by triggering the release of serotonin, a neurochemical that helps regulate mood. A lack of sunlight plays a role in the development of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that affects millions of Americans, especially those who live in northern climates.
If you’re no fan of the cold, consider investing in some super-warm clothing and boots that will keep you cozy outdoors. “I always remind my patients that there are very few days in the winter that are really too cold to get outside, even in New England,” Armstrong says.
Use a light box
When you can’t get the boost you crave from sunlight, light therapy might help. Artificial light delivered through devices such as light boxes has been successfully used to treat SAD for decades, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Light boxes produce light that is 20 times brighter than typical indoor light while filtering out potentially harmful ultraviolet rays.
People who use light therapy sit in front of a light box for 30 to 45 minutes first thing in the morning. “Light boxes really seem to make a difference for some people,” Khazan says. Check with your doctor before using a lightbox, because it’s not recommended for people with certain mood disorders or eye conditions.
Go on a media diet
Exposing yourself to a constant barrage of upsetting news and anger-inducing headlines can take a real toll on your mood. To protect yourself, consider limiting your media consumption.
Going on a three-month news blackout is neither responsible nor necessary. Instead, set reasonable limits, like checking news only once or twice a day or switching off the breaking news alerts on your phone. “Have a plan for your news consumption,” Khazan says. “And when you look at the news, do it in a controlled way by choosing news outlets that you trust and limiting how much time you spend on it.” Then, once you’re finished catching up, shut it off.
Seek help if you need it
These are challenging times. If you’re having trouble coping, don’t be ashamed to ask for help from a licensed mental health provider. During the pandemic, many therapists are offering virtual visits. “Some patients have told me they hesitated to begin therapy remotely, but were surprised at how comfortable they felt with it,” Armstrong says.
For 24/7 emergency support, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255).
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