In the perfect circumstances, winter can be a magical time. Picture an assortment of engaging social activities (varied parties, family gatherings, and community events) against a backdrop of snowfall and colourful lights. That’s the fantasy scenario — but reality is rarely anything like that.
For many people, winter tends to be a time of stress and listlessness that’s only partially redeemed by occasions such as Christmas and New Year’s Eve (and even that tends to be a letdown for many of us).
This year, though, the outlook is particularly bleak. Due to restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, there won’t be many big social events this winter. Even basic family activities will be limited.
As the days get shorter and the nights get colder, the anguish of this horrible year will intensify, and you’ll find it hard to keep your mental health in check. But you will make it through — and if you put real effort into self-care, you can limit the discomfort you have to endure.
In this post, we’re going to look at seven tips for protecting your mental health this winter. Here they are:
Get comfortable with inactivity
When you don’t have the option of going out and experiencing the rich wonders of the world, it makes a ton of sense to divert your energy into whatever activities you can come up with. You can try mastering the guitar, writing a classic novel, or coming up with the perfect recipe for banana bread (again). And depending on how adaptable you are, you can pack your schedule with fresh challenges to keep you occupied and prevent your thoughts from straying.
But no matter how hard you try, you’ll run into periods of downtime, and they can be extremely hazardous to your mental health if you don’t know how to cope with them. You can distract yourself for weeks only to fall into distress when you don’t have anything to stop negative thoughts creeping in.
The solution isn’t to find even more things to do: it’s to become comfortable with inevitable inactivity, and cultivate the skill to settle your mind.
Try simply sitting down for a while and letting your thoughts roam freely. Don’t think about what your next task is, and push away any feelings of guilt about not doing anything. Accept that inactivity is alright. If you reach Saturday but don’t have anything to do, it’s 100% fine if you do nothing at all. What matters is how you feel about it.
Practise gratitude and focus on the positives
We all dwell on negative elements of life at times, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight against it, particularly during a time when there are so many negatives to be found.
Try to put things into perspective. Whatever else is going on, there are going to be good things in your life. Maybe you have great friends who stick by your side no matter what happens. Maybe you’re in great health. Maybe you’re doing well in your job and your career prospects are excellent.
Make a concerted effort to focus on these — these amazing things or people in your life that you are grateful for. Take time to reflect on these each day, and remind yourself on a regular basis that things could be so much worse. You can’t force yourself to feel great (which is why the note that “other people have harder lives” never helps), but you can slightly nudge yourself towards optimism by practising gratitude, and even a small improvement would make the whole thing worthwhile.
Limit your use of social media
Social media is utterly toxic, but that word has lost some impact due to overuse, so let’s instead say that it’s rancid. It held a lot of potential that was ultimately wasted, and now it’s riddled with parts that are unfit for consumption. And even the safe parts facilitate the hellish process of comparing your life to those of others, inevitably suggesting that you’re not good enough.
Now, I’m not saying you should quit social media entirely. It might be necessary for your job, or there may be parts of it that you genuinely find enjoyable. Just use it sparingly. Get out of the habit of checking Twitter every five minutes. Remind yourself that neither Twitter nor Facebook represents how people think and act in the wider world. And remember that life isn’t as picture-perfect as Instagram makes it out to be.
Spend a lot of time on social media and you’ll come to despise huge portions of the world. Spend that time actually talking to people in your life — friends, family and colleagues — in lengthy one-on-one conversations and you’ll discover that we’re all far more similar than we are different. Group exchanges bring out the worst in us, so don’t let them corrupt the way you view humanity.
Confide in someone
Just about everyone has someone they can talk to about their problems. Friends, family members, colleagues, even medical professionals if necessary — there are people out there who are ready and willing to listen to what you have to say. And since we all have problems, you should take advantage of this to share whatever burdens you’re carrying around.
What’s bothering you? Are you desperately afraid of contracting COVID-19? Frustrated about not being able to meet anyone new for quite some time? Tired of being stuck in one place?
Whatever’s bringing you down, you should tell someone about it. This won’t change much, of course — describing a problem doesn’t make it go away — but it will prove cathartic, partially lift the weight of your stress, and grant you a strong reminder that you’re not alone.
Maintain a healthy diet
When I say healthy here, I’m granting it a dual meaning. I’m obviously talking about classic physical health to a significant extent: after all, eating and drinking in ways that are good for your physical wellbeing will inevitably prove beneficial to your mental health as well. But I’m also talking about eating and drinking to bring yourself comfort and satisfaction.
These things aren’t actually mutually exclusive, after all. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with comfort eating: in fact, it’s something we all have in common. What you need to do is find a balance between obsessing over nutrition and repeatedly choosing immediate gratification. Should you eat an entire pie? No. You’ll end up feeling ill, bloated, and ashamed.
But you also shouldn’t reject a piece of pie because you don’t need it to fuel your energy reserves. You’re not a robot. Eating for enjoyment is just part of being human. Have that piece of pie, enjoy it as much as you can, and don’t waste time feeling guilty about it.
Take regular walks in the cold
When it’s cold outside, your natural instinct will push you to stay indoors, wrap up warm, and wait for things to change. You need to push back against that instinct, and there are several great reasons why.
Firstly, walking is fantastic low-impact exercise that’s viable almost everywhere and can calm your thoughts and settle your nerves.
Secondly, experiencing the cold will leave you feeling refreshed and make you appreciate the warmth of home more when you return. Contrast is extremely important for enjoying life. Getting an afternoon off when you’re working long days feels amazing, for instance, while having a free afternoon when you’re unemployed is no victory at all.
Thirdly, strolling through the outside world will give you a much-needed reminder that it’s all still there. Communities haven’t stopped existing just because you’ve been stuck indoors. Everywhere you go, you’ll see other people out walking, and you’ll feel a meaningful sense of comfort from this experience. If you can’t meet many other people, you can still be around them.
Forgive yourself for your flaws
Lastly, you need to accept that you’re going to make mistakes, and that’s never going to change. You’ll mess up some or all of the tips we’ve been through here. You’ll overindulge on food and be furious with yourself. You’ll spend hours on Twitter and deeply regret it. To err is human, and you’ll err time and time again — but that’s alright.
This doesn’t mean that you should be happy or even indifferent about those errors. You should definitely try to learn from them and reach conclusions about how you can do better in the future. You just shouldn’t beat yourself up about them, because that only ever makes things worse. The more you get upset with yourself, the more vulnerable you’ll be to further mistakes.
There you go: seven tips for looking after your mental health this winter. It isn’t going to be easy, but if you put in a serious effort then you should be able to make some great progress and find your way through the coming months with relative ease.