Bolster Your Mental Health for the Coming COVID Winter

The coronavirus will make Winter 2020 very hard for us all. Be ready.

Posted Sep 30, 2020

cromaconceptovisual / Pixabay
Source: cromaconceptovisual / Pixabay

My medical clinical work is in mental health, providing psychotherapy and support to people suffering mostly from depression and anxiety. It’s been satisfying to observe how people’s moods and situations have improved from the lowest, most stressful point in the spring when COVID and the associated lockdowns first really hit North America.

Some of the improvement I’ve seen in my patients has been due to therapeutic support, for sure, but a lot of it had to do with summer and a resumption of (socially distanced) normal activities.

I live in a colder part of the world, and my patients are worried about how they’ll feel when the dark icy days descend and the risk of contracting COVID goes up. When there’s less daylight and sunshine, it’s harder to be outside. Outdoor restaurant patios probably won’t be an option anymore.

Our first intense lockdown period lasted just a couple of months and took place in the beautiful blooming days of spring. What if things get really rough again? What if it’s the hardest, longest winter in memory? This could indeed be what’s coming.

The other day, a patient asked me for tips on how to bolster his mental health for what may be coming. I told him that the most foundational thing he could do would be to focus on three main things, on a daily basis. If he took really good care of these three areas of his life, his threshold for depression, anxiety, and burnout would be raised much higher, and he’d be more resilient through any dark days to come.

Here are those three areas:

1. Get enough good quality sleep, every night. Sleep has a huge impact on your mood, and your ability to cope with stress and adversity. Think of the last time you had a poor or short night’s sleep, and how hard it was to get through your workday. Know how many hours of sleep you need a night to feel at your best, and do whatever it takes to get that sleep.

If you have trouble getting a good night’s sleep, here are some posts that might help:

2. Exercise, exercise, exercise. I can’t emphasize this one enough. Regular cardiovascular exercise has a powerfully protective, boosting effect on your mood. It has been shown in studies to be as effective as antidepressants in treating moderate levels of depression. If you’re vulnerable to low moods, anxiety, stress, or burnout, exercise should be your best friend. Try to get moving every single day.

If you live in a cold snowy climate, find ways to exercise indoors, or bundle up and get outside if you can. I was stuck inside for a week recently due to smoke from wildfires, and I discovered some great free exercise classes online that worked me harder than my usual daily walking and strength training routine. I was more fit after our smoky indoor week than I had been the week before!

3. Eat foods that protect your mood. What you eat affects how you feel and think. I just spoke to a patient today, who upon my advice had switched from eating mostly junk foods to avoiding sugar, eating lots of vegetables, and cooking healthy meals at home. After just a couple of weeks, she couldn’t believe how much more energy she had, along with the improvement in her mood and overall wellbeing. 

Alcohol also has a substantial impact on your mood. During the spring, the European WHO issued a recommendation for people to limit alcohol during COVID, for mental health reasons. From their FAQ About Alcohol and COVID-19: “People may drink more alcohol to deal with stress or boredom at home; this is likely to cause or intensify mental health issues, thereby increasing the risk of anxiety and depression.” 

If you’re vulnerable to mental health ups and downs, use alcohol very carefully. I was really stressed when the pandemic hit our region in March, and I intentionally avoided alcohol completely until the end of April. I’m sure that really helped me to navigate such a historically difficult time without falling apart. (See "The Brain Health Food Guide.")

We don’t know exactly what’s in store for all of us over the coming months, but it is going to be tough. This will be a time to take very, very good care of yourself, in order to be as resilient as possible.

These healthy habits also are great for your immune system, which is also key to getting through a pandemic. Start building these good habits now. You are worth it, and so is your mental health.

And if you find yourself struggling this winter, reach out to a mental health professional or your doctor and get yourself some additional support.

© 2020 Dr. Susan Biali Haas, MD

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