How to Survive a Quarantine Winter

Wintertime can be hard even without a pandemic. Here are eight ways to cope.

Posted Jan 03, 2021

 @luizclas/Pexels, used with permission
Source: @luizclas/Pexels, used with permission

By Jessica Tepper and J. Wesley Boyd

"In the winter, the bear enters the cave to hibernate … to [dream] and digest the year’s experience. To accomplish the goals and the dreams that we carry, the art of introspection is necessary.”  —Jamie Sams and David Carson

For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, winter can be difficult even in normal times. In the natural world, food sources become scarce, the ground freezes, and daylight fades. Our metabolism slows to conserve energy and we sleep more.  Winter can also be a time when depression sets in.  Unfortunately, this is not surprising given that reduced sunlight is associated with reduced serotonin levels (our body’s “happiness” chemical), which can lower mood, reduce motivation, and worsen outlook on life.

Now add to this a global pandemic. Even if we don’t know someone personally who has been affected by COVID-19, we are all affected by the increased isolation and need for social distancing. And without our usual activities and outlets, life can feel at best, boring, or at worst, scary and bleak. So it is not surprising that quarantine conditions can produce negative psychological states such as worsening anxiety and depression.[1] Given the combination of winter and a global pandemic, how can we approach the next few months ahead? Here are eight suggestions for going forward:

  1. Remember you are not alone. Every person on the planet is going through the stress of this experience. It’s normal to feel uncomfortable, alone, or anxious during times as unprecedented as these—but remember we are experiencing it together.
  2. Find safe ways to connect. Health precautions come first, but don’t let social distancing result in emotionally distancing yourself from others. Relationships matter—in fact, they are a hallmark of good health. Take time to maintain and nurture connections. It’s a good time to rekindle old friendships or try new (virtual) ways of meeting new people.
  3. Build intimacy. Intimacy occurs when we feel seen, heard, and understood by another person. We all need this—especially now. It is possible, in these times, to experience connection—but only if we create opportunities for it. This could look like: initiating contact with someone new—even if we feel nervous about rejection. It could mean openly sharing our needs, feelings, and desires, and not shying away from difficult conversations that matter. (A tip is to speak using “I” rather than “you” statements). When we open up, we allow others the opportunity to understand us better. And this, in turn, strengthens our relationships. Further, when we ask for what we want, we allow for the possibility of receiving what we want.
  4. Elevate your thinking. Be mindful of negative thought traps, including catastrophizing (imagining/fixating on worst-case scenarios) and disqualifying the positive (by only giving credit to the negative). These thinking styles in cognitive-behavioral therapy are known as “cognitive distortions”  and not only are they inaccurate or “distortions” of reality—but they tend to worsen anxiety and depression. How you think affects how you feel. If you can, elevate your mindset and up-grade your outlook. Find and focus on what is working, what you do appreciate. Focus on what genuinely feels good to you—doing so will have a positive impact on your overall mood and well-being.
  5. Don’t run from negative emotions.  This is a time to look at the painful feelings we might otherwise avoid. If something in your life is dissatisfying, uncomfortable, or painful—get curious about it. Lean into it with compassion (here is a great technique for doing so). If there is a problem, own in what ways you might contribute to it and then take action. This is your life. The pandemic will go on, but this is the only life you have to live. If you aren’t happy with something, now is the time to make a change.
  6. Embrace discomfort and fear. We don’t mean entering public spaces without a mask or doing something reckless—but rather going for that thing you might have dreamt about in the past, but were too scared before to try. If you have a dream, it’s there for a reason. If you can’t do it now, plan for how you can do it down the road.
  7. Be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Similarly, given the scale of this pandemic, it won’t be fixed tomorrow. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but something as big as this occurs over time.  Since we can’t change the timetable, we can either fight it or accept it. When we accept reality, we give ourselves the gift of new possibilities. (For example: One year ago, we might’ve given anything to have extra time at home, but now that we have it, are we doing everything we dreamed of doing back then?)
  8. Take time to pause. No matter who you are, this period asks us all to slow down. To reflect and be introspective. Some gifts of slowing down include relaxation, contemplation, reflection, gathering insight and wisdom, which can help guide our future decisions. Pausing along these lines creates the opportunity to look at what we are unhappy with and consider new possibilities. Rest.

There is a new world upon us: Once this winter passes and once the pandemic is mostly in our rearview mirror, some things will return to normal but mostly we will be living in a new normal.  Nobody who has lived through this will forget the toll it has taken. But given where we are now, winter gives us the opportunity to pause and look at our individual and collective lives for what they are—good and bad. Whatever you might dislike around you, you can ignore and fight—or you can take steps to heal and solve. Be it a personal crisis (such as the nagging problem in a relationship) or on a societal level. When we stop running from pain and problems and instead accept them, we allow ourselves the gift of transformation: taking a problem and creating a solution.

This is our time to create. To plan a new future. To dream.

Jessica Tepper, LICSW is an individual and couples therapist, coach, and writer based in Boston. 

References

[1] Brooks, S.K., Webster, R.K., Smith, L.E. et al. (2020). The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence. The Lancet. 395 (10227).