Your Winter Survival Guide

Coping Tips to Help Beat the Blues in this Pandemic Winter

October 05, 2020
Sunshine and daylight are critical to well-being
Sunshine and daylight are critical to well-being

Kimberly Asner Self, EdD, professor and director of the Mental Health Counseling Program at Touro College School of Health Science, explains why so many of us feel sluggish and drained during the winter. Asner Self offers tips for combatting those feelings and staying upbeat as the pandemic continues and winter approaches.

The winter months can be a rough time for many people emotionally. There are not as many daylight hours, the weather is cold, there can be rain or snow, the skies can be gray for days on end. It is easy to slow down, lose some motivation, gain weight, withdraw from others, crave sweets and simple carbohydrates, over-sleep, almost hibernate during the winter. For many of us, these are the “winter blues.” Almost one out of every ten people in northern climates like New York are affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Add to this the grief many who have lost friends and family to COVID-19 are experiencing, the stress of six months of living in a very different present, the disparate realities of all of our lives—whether we be black, brown, rich, poor, Jewish, non-Jewish—and the uncertainty of a second COVID-19 wave, possibly more virulent than the last, and you have a potential perfect storm for an even rougher winter. 

Here we are in October. Now is the time to innoculate ourselves and our families with coping strategies for this unusual winter. Remember:

  1. We need light, daylight. The difference in daylight hours from mid-summer to mid-winter in New York is almost six hours.   
  2. We need exercise. Exercise improves our overall mood. 
  3. We need social contact. Being with positive people, or a positive person, we trust and love helps us lighten up. 
  4. We need vitamin D. We get a lot of this from sunlight. Go outside daily, on a walk, with a friend. It’s cold, cloudy, threatening rain, sleet, or snow. Bundle up, put on a mask and walk for a minimum of 30 minutes. Together. Head for a local café or Bodega to pick up a coffee or tea. Talk with each other. Tell each other the most amusing thing that has happened since you last met. Laugh.  Sometimes the rain is pounding, the wind is very bitter, the children are miserable and you choose to stay home. How to get sunlight, exercise and social contact? You may want to consider getting a lightbox now before it gets that miserable. A lightbox (look for one with 10,000 lux for good effect) can be easily found online. Some are more expensive than others. Choose one in your budget and experiment to see when and how long works for you. For example, I found 45 minutes in the morning worked wonders. My friend finds 60 minutes right around sunset helps. You can also check with your doctor as there have been studies linking Vitamin D with mood. Your doctor may prescribe Vitamin D supplements. 
  5. Create a nice space at home. Imagine an indoor space that relaxes you or makes you smile right now. Think about all five senses. What soothes your eyes? Ears? Nose? What is healthy comfort food? What feels snuggly and comfy? Maybe putting plants around the room. Listening to upbeat music and dancing around the house while doing chores. With a stew on the stove made with veggies and whole wheat noodles bubbling. The smell wafting through the apartment. Curl up on the sofa, with a child, a dog, a cat, and a book to read. Act out the parts. Or sit at the table and color, play with clay, play a board game. Do yoga inside, with your children, laugh when you all fall over in a heap. If you are working from home, get up every hour and dance around the apartment for ten minutes. If you can Zoom or FaceTime, then do all of these over with another family or friend remotely. Pray, meditate, practice mindfulness at specific times of the day that are appropriate for you, maybe morning, mid-day and evening.   
  6. Good sleep hygiene, healthy eating and routine. Human beings tend to like at least some routine. Our biochemistry depends on certain regularity. We can help ourselves by going to bed and waking up at the same time every night—varying by no more than a half-hour. Limiting screen time for an hour before bed. Having a quieting routine before bed. Having a similar waking up schedule. Getting out of those pajamas. Dressing for the day. Eating a healthy breakfast. Remember, we crave sweets when we are blue. A doughnut or sugary cereal is not going to help. An egg with whole wheat bread will. Oatmeal with peanut butter will.  Whole wheat pancakes with walnuts will. Get creative. Mix complex carbohydrates with protein and good fats.   
  7. Be kind to others. Not just people you know and love. Be kind to those on the street as you walk. A smile and a nod to a homeless person instead of refusing eye contact can go a long way. A “good day” to random strangers can be unexpected and start a ripple of connection. Tell a person walking their dog, that the dog is adorable, cute, so playful or however you perceive it—stay positive. At the grocery store, tell the person stocking that you appreciate the work they do making the shelves look nice. Try it, you may feel an uplift, too.   
  8. Talk with an impartial professional. Sometimes people we love simply do not understand our sadness. It is important to find a good mental health counselor or a spiritual leader (a Rabbi, a Priest, an Imam, a Minister). The most important consideration is a “fit” between you and the professional. Keep trying until you find someone with whom you can work. Indeed, you may need some medication to help get your biochemistry back in whack!

All in all, the winter blues are real. The pandemic blues are, too. The likelihood of another pandemic-based lockdown this winter is high.  Preparing for the blues or SAD does not mean you will assuredly avoid either. But you may feel better, as will the people around you.  

Be well and stay safe.