How to Prepare for the Short Days and Long Winter Ahead

By Stacey Whiteley

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Many people truly enjoy the winter and look forward to wearing chunky sweaters, sipping cocoa by a fire and enjoying the holidays. But there are a significant number of people who find the winter months dreadful. Coupled with COVID-19 precautions, this group of people is even more apprehensive about the upcoming change of seasons. If you aren’t looking forward to the first snowfall, do not despair. There are tools available to help.

To help manage your mood and health through this COVID winter, the advice offered by many mental health specialists is to fully accept and understand the current reality. Accept that the pandemic and the restrictions imposed because of it are not going to go away soon, and, for the foreseeable future, life will continue to be uncertain, disruptive and abnormal.

Accepting the reality as it is does not imply approval nor should it be considered complacency; it also is not denial of the situation nor is it an attempt to paint a happy face on things. Instead, this radical acceptance of how things are right now will free up space in your mind. This way, you can focus your energy on the things you can control, giving you a better sense of self determination and providing more opportunities to recognize and celebrate the joys and successes, big and small, that will present themselves to you over the new few months.

In addition to practicing radical acceptance, there are additional practical actions you can take that will help you successfully manage, and maybe even thrive, through the winter season.

First and foremost, continue to follow the guidelines set forth by the CDC and your local health agencies. Wash your hands often, wear a mask, maintain social distancing and avoid large crowds, especially indoors. Each geographic area of the state is regulated by varying standards depending on the number of positive cases reported; stay aware of the numbers and be flexible with your plans and expectations.

If you have been planning to sign up for a yoga class, or an online boxing program, or have been meaning to dust off the treadmill, now is the time to do it. Use these precious few months leading up to winter to start incorporating exercise into your day. Putting in place a routine that you enjoy now will be an immense help to you later. Having an established exercise plan will give you something to look forward to as well as help your body’s resiliency in fighting off winter’s cold and flu bugs. Research shows that exercise not only helps improve mood, but also helps sharpen mental acuity.

Speaking of the flu, make sure to get a flu shot. Call your primary care doctor, stop into your local pharmacy or make an appointment at one of the many clinics in your community. It will be one more tool in your toolbox that will work all winter to keep you healthy.

Learn to love (or just moderately tolerate) being outdoors in colder weather and prepare yourself to be outside more than usual this winter. Purchase a few pieces of quality cold weather gear, invest in an outdoor patio heater or sharpen those ice skates and skis. Make being outside as comfortable and as fun as possible. Socializing outdoors is safer than indoors, and the light, fresh air, and if you choose, exercise, will be a boost to your mood and health.

Begin purchasing extra healthy staples for your pantry and freezer on your grocery shopping trips, so when the weather is unwelcoming or there are shortages at the market, you have healthy meal supplies at the ready. A healthy diet will go a long way for keeping your mood stable and your body sound. This does not mean that you should start to horde food, but by purchasing an extra bag of frozen vegetables or a couple of boxes of whole wheat pasta, when you shop now, will help you make healthy dinner decisions during the winter and may ease some stress should grocery stores experience shortages again.

Revisit setting up online get-togethers with friends and family. This often-used practice from the beginning of the COVID crisis continues to be a useful way to foster a sense of community and belonging. Although many feel that there are already too many meetings online, meetings that celebrate friendships and family will help keep you connected and centered. Seeing people you care about, even if it is over a screen, is vital to ensuring your social network remains intact and strong during the colder months. There’s more to do during an online social gathering than just the tried and true happy hour, so get creative and have fun. Your mental health will thank you.

Finally, understand that there may be periods during this winter that will seem to drag on forever and may bring your mood and energy down pretty low.  But always keep in mind that winter will end; winter in the Northeast only feels like it lasts forever, spring will arrive in due time.

This quote from author Hal Borland sums it up best, “No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn.” Remember, you have gotten through other long winters and you already have successfully managed through months of much more severe lockdowns, so you can get through this winter and all it brings with it.

But if you cannot shake a low mood after a few days or cannot summon the energy to take care of yourself, find a way to reach out for assistance. Text your friends or family, call your primary care doctor or therapist, access your employee assistance program or call the Lawyer Assistance Program (800.255.0569) and talk to someone. Help is available.

With the right planning and attitude, you just might find yourself healthier and happier come spring.

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