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Facing COVID-19 and winter: A mental health expert offers tips and coping strategies

Winter weather, COVID-19, and political uncertainty may amplify seasonal mental health difficulties for people this year. We asked M Health Fairview Psychiatrist C. Sophia Albott, MD, MA for guidance.

Even in a normal year, winter weather and long nights can take a toll on your physical and mental wellbeing. This winter, the COVID-19 pandemic, job losses, and political discord may make the winter blues even more challenging – particularly for people who have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or depression.

“All of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic and politics is making it harder for people to rely on coping strategies they normally use,” said M Health Fairview Psychiatrist C. Sophia Albott, MD, MA. “The pandemic prevents people from connecting with people, making it incredibly more difficult to some to get the support they need.”

To help, we asked Albott for tips and coping strategies to safely boost your mental health this winter, while supporting the wellbeing of your family and friends. If you need additional support or treatment, we strongly encourage you to seek professional mental healthcare.

Connect virtually with friends and family

Catch up with loved ones virtually or outdoors in a socially distant setting. “Even talking with someone on the phone can be helpful,” Albott said. Schedule a digital social hour or bring your friends together to participate in trivia sessions, movie screenings, and other activities through via video conferencing tools. It’s OK to ask for help, too. Talking with people you trust about your concerns and how you are managing them can help you build mental and emotional strength.

Prioritize sleep and healthy eating

Get a good night’s sleep. Lack of sleep is associated with increased risk for depression and other negative mental health effects. Studies suggest getting a healthy amount of sleep improves mental and emotional resilience. Albott also recommends paying attention to your diet and eating as healthfully as you can. Diets high in processed foods and refined sugars have been linked to worsening of mood disorders, including depression.

Try light therapy

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) may be caused by the lack of sunlight exposure in the winter. If you notice that seasonal changes have caused trouble sleeping, a poor appetite, or anxiety, try using a light box. Albott recommends a minimum of 30 minutes of light box usage daily, preferably in the morning, to make things easier. People can get a prescription for a device from a doctor or purchase a light box online. Make sure that you choose a light box that is rated for 10,000 lux, and that the light source is placed within two feet of your face when in use.

Stay active – inside and outside

Get as much exercise as possible. While going to the gym may be challenging or impossible due to COVID-19 risk, Albott suggests using online videos to guide your at-home workouts. Outdoor workouts are still possible in the winter, too. Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or even a short winter walk outside can help you relax and reduce your stress load. 

Take a break from your smartphone or social media

Constant exposure to the news cycle and or your social media feeds can amplify anxiety and stress. Though it’s important to stay informed, Albott says breaks are necessary. Try disabling social media apps or limiting your news consumption to help manage stress. Find reliable, fact-based news sources and avoid sensationalized coverage. “Studies have shown that even looking at your phone can cause a person’s level of cortisol – a stress hormone – to go up,” Albott said.