Surviving the Pandemic Winter — 6 Proven Ways to Look After Your Mental Health in Lockdown
If you feel depressed this winter, you're not alone.
Except that, unfortunately, you probably are alone since it's January 2021, the world is in lockdown once again, and we've all been alone for almost a year now.
But, if you're reading this now, it means one thing — you survived 2020, and that in itself deserves recognition.
Yet, in spite of this huge achievement, there's no reprieve.
Instead, you find yourself staring down the barrel of another year of pandemic, with no apparent end in sight — in spite of the promises about the vaccine.
Whether you've had the virus yourself, lost loved ones to it, or are facing financial insecurity, neuroscientists say that the pandemic has affected all of us in one way or another.
Add isolation and worry to the long winter stretching ahead, and it's no wonder you've got a worse-than-usual case of the January blues.
This article will give you six proven strategies to help you look after your mental health in lockdown during this pandemic winter.
Why Does Winter Make Us Sad?
Seasonal affective disorder — aptly known as SAD — is a common condition that affects people during the autumn and winter months but goes away in spring and summer.
Symptoms may include:
Low mood and energy
Having trouble sleeping
Lack of motivation
Inability to concentrate
Changes in weight and appetite
Feeling hopeless or worthless
While experts aren't sure of the exact causes of SAD, they believe that the lack of sunlight messes with your mood-regulating hormones, such as serotonin and melatonin.
It also throws your circadian rhythm, or "internal clock," out of whack, which can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression.
Is Anxiety Worse in the Winter?
If you are prone to anxiety the rest of the year, then your seasonal affective disorder could also manifest as anxiety during winter.
But this year, it may be even worse, as COVID-19 wasn't the only pandemic that started in 2020.
Fear of the virus, loss of loved ones, isolation, and economic stress are taking their toll on us all, causing a mental health pandemic.
Those of us with preexisting conditions find ourselves battling symptoms once again, while others may be experiencing mental health issues for the first time — with anxiety and depression being the most common.
Yet, according to the WHO, COVID-19 has disrupted or halted mental health services in 93% of countries.
This means that, just when people need more support than ever, the fragile and limited support structures that they may have leaned on before are no longer available.
What Are the Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health?
We're currently living through a collective trauma experience.
Collective trauma occurs when a large group of people experiences a major disruptive event that causes psychological distress for the majority of those people.
Apart from the very obvious trauma of those who get sick and those who lose loved ones, those of us not (yet) directly affected by the virus are suffering from:
Loneliness and isolation (which are as deadly as smoking)
Job loss and financial insecurity
Fear of catching the virus or spreading it to vulnerable loved ones.
We are all experiencing grief in one form or another — and not only those who have lost loved ones.
We are grieving for our future plans, for our jobs, for our social lives, and for everything this pandemic has taken away from us.
How Can You Improve Your Winter Mood?
In spite of the outer chaos, you can do a few things this winter (and at any time of year) that will help boost your mood and relieve feelings of anxiety and depression.
Emotional eating is a thing, and it's tempting to reach for the greasy, salty, sweet things when experiencing difficult emotions.
And — honestly — sometimes, I think it's necessary.
But there's a caveat: you have to balance out the comfort food by giving your body — and brain — the nutrients they need.
Food affects your mood, and if you don't believe me, try it for yourself and see.
Make a note of how you feel the day after eating junk food and compare it with how you feel after a day of eating whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean meats, and fish.
Sugar, in particular, messes with your head by skyrocketing your cortisol levels, which throws all your hormones out of whack — including the mood-regulating ones.
So, while it's okay — and even necessary — to indulge from time to time, your focus should be on feeding your body as many fresh, whole foods as possible.
Exercise is essential for managing mental health.
In fact, I credit my regular workouts with getting me this far through the pandemic without relying on professional help.
Exercise releases "happy hormones" — known as endorphins — which relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Plus, exercise boosts immunity, so it can help you build your defenses against COVID-19.
Although it may not be possible to go to the gym or play your favorite sports right now, there are plenty of resources available to help you get fit from the comfort of your home.
The lack of sunlight during winter months is the primary cause of SAD, which is why many people find it helpful to use light therapy at this time of year.
Sunlight can also help boost your immunity since your skin uses it to make Vitamin D — an immune-boosting nutrient that is not present in most foods.
Unfortunately, getting sunlight is never easy at this time of year for those of us in the northern hemisphere — and lockdowns make it even harder.
So, what can you do to protect your mental health, even during lockdown?
Here are my top 6 strategies.
6 Ways to Look After Your Mental Health During Lockdown
#1 Acknowledge Your Feelings
Let's face it, 2020 was a lot, and 2021 is starting to look like it's bringing more heat.
If you find yourself trying to "be strong" or "hold it together," there's a chance you might be suppressing your emotions.
It's not your fault. You probably grew up believing "big girls/boys don't cry."
But being "strong" is bad for your mental health.
And what most people don't realize is that it takes far more strength to admit what you're feeling — even to yourself — than it does to ignore it.
Constant communication with trusted friends and loved ones is key. The old cliché "a problem shared is a problem halved" really is true.
For example, my partner and I have started doing a 5-minute check-in every morning, where we take it in turns to speak and practice active listening.
It's a non-judgmental space in which we can talk openly about what's going on in our inner worlds.
We're not trying to solve our problems — just share them. And it helps.
(Although sharing them often helps us solve them, too.)
If you don't have someone to talk to or are not ready for that level of vulnerability yet, try writing about your feelings in a journal or notebook.
Don't censor yourself — just write what you really feel.
You'll feel better afterward.
#2 Listen to Your Body
Watch out for changes in your body that could be warning you to take better care of yourself.
Changes to look out for include:
Changes in appetite
Disrupted sleep patterns
Weight loss or gain
Ambiguous physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, muscle pain
Alcohol or substance use
If you notice any of the above symptoms over an extended period of time, seek your healthcare provider's advice.
#3 Take It One Day at a Time
If it feels hard to make long-term plans right now, that's because it is.
The pandemic has literally rewired our brains to focus on surviving in the here and now — as well as robbing many of us of our motivation.
As humans, we naturally like to plan for the future — it gives us the illusion of having control over our lives.
But, with the future now impossible to predict, you may find yourself struggling to visualize the future.
That's why it's better to take it one day at a time and focus on what you can do rather than what you can't.
And don't put pressure on yourself to be "productive" while you're in lockdown.
I know it's hard with all the "pandemic success stories" circulating online, but honestly, just getting through another day is a huge achievement, so take it one day at a time.
If you find yourself feeling lost or unmotivated, ask yourself — "What can I do for myself today? What do I need to feel better?"
Whatever the answer, have the grace to give yourself what you need, and receive it without judgment.
We may be physically separated, but we've never been more connected to one another virtually than we are now.
Of course, it's not the same seeing your mom on Zoom when you'd rather give her a hug — but it's better than nothing.
There was a time (and it was during this century) that connecting with people around the world was so expensive that it was virtually impossible.
Now, we have access to not only our loved ones but also complete strangers at the touch of a button — allowing us to create global networks like never before.
Maintaining contact with the outside world is especially necessary for those who live alone to keep the effects of isolation at bay.
People living with partners, families, or roommates have the opportunity to connect with each other in new ways.
Let's face it — being co-confined has its challenges. Sometimes, you want to throttle each other.
But all that time together can also inspire you to do new things together.
For example, my partner is a DJ, so he's been teaching me to mix vinyl records during lockdown nights.
I'll never be a professional DJ, but that doesn't matter.
The point is that we spend time having fun and doing something different together. It's a bonding experience that helps us connect on a deeper level.
At this time of heightened stress, anxiety, and uncertainty, it's essential to soothe your nervous system.
Taking just a few minutes per day for deep conscious breathing, meditation, or some calming yoga poses can make a huge difference to your mood and help relieve anxiety and depression symptoms.
I also love yoga Nidra to help me wind down and get a decent night's sleep when I'm feeling extra frazzled.
I highly recommend these free resources from my friend and holistic therapist, Rebecca Hemmings, which include a healing guided meditation, self-care sheet, immune-boosting protocol, and more.
Practicing gratitude is also a powerful exercise that can train your brain to focus more on positive things than negative ones, which can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
#6 Focus on What You Can Control
Ultimately, taking care of your mental health during lockdown is about mindfully choosing where your attention goes.
It's human to get caught up in fear and worry — especially when they are as widespread as they are now — but you can decide whether to let it sweep you away or not.
When you find your thoughts racing, you can call on the logical, thinking part of your brain to help you calm the panicked survival part of your brain.
Instead of focusing on what you can't control (the virus, the economy, etc.), focus on that which is within your control.
This could be:
Practicing good hygiene and social distancing
Looking for ways to make extra money
Focusing on your relationships
Learning a new skill, etc.
I also find pouring my energy into creative activities particularly helpful — even if that's just cooking a meal since the food I put in my body is something that I can control and that helps maintain my mental health.
A Final Word…
I hope these tips help you find relief from your mental health symptoms, whatever they may be.
However, please remember they are designed to help you cope with lockdown life and cannot substitute the attention of medical or mental health professionals.
If you're struggling to cope, please reach out to a professional for support — you don't have to do this alone.