While recent headlines about a coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccine may be promising, COVID-19 is not going away—in fact, it’s getting worse. As of Nov. 18, the average number of cases a day in the United States hit 162,816, and more than 11 million people in the United States have been infected. At least 250,400 people have died.
Living through the pandemic the past several months has been difficult, but one silver lining was that we could find respite outdoors during the spring and summer months. Now we’re entering the winter months where the days are shorter and the temperatures may be too low to spend hours outside. In addition, the holidays will look different this year.
So how can we prepare mentally and emotionally for this unique winter to come? UNC Health psychiatrist Nadia Charguia, MD, suggests taking these four steps.
1. Anticipate the challenge.
When trying to solve a problem or face a challenge, it is important to acknowledge the situation head-on. You can be mindful in advance about the feelings that are likely to come, and think now about how you want to respond to your emotions.
“This is a time of the year, pre-pandemic, that often has its own mental health challenges, and the risk is high for those to be compounded,” Dr. Charguia says. “We’re going to feel disappointed at times. Allow yourself that time and space to acknowledge those feelings.”
Give yourself permission to feel your feelings and grieve the way “normal” life would have been. Then put yourself in the driver’s seat and think about how you want to respond to this challenging time.
2. Plan for what’s ahead.
Although you don’t know what is going to happen in the future, you can focus on what you can control and make a plan for that. Taking action gives you a sense of agency and reminds you that you can overcome challenges.
“Think ahead so you can be on top of your own wellness and your own needs,” Dr. Charguia says. “Set plans and keep those plans. I think a lot of folks have fallen out of that habit, but these next few months will be the time to pick those back up.”
For example: Plan Zoom calls with friends. (Even if you’re tired of Zoom, you’re likely to be happier after socializing.) Sign up for a virtual fitness challenge. Buy all the supplies you need to pursue a new hobby.
“Make it fun in a way that can be more personally satisfying,” Dr. Charguia says. ”We all need that satisfaction and connection to joy and happiness. It’s not that it has to be a part of every minute every day, but to have elements of it in place will help us get through all of this.”
3. Connect with people you love.
Think of creative ways to connect with others. You can stay emotionally connected through technology and virtual meetups. You also can FaceTime with grandparents or pick up the phone and call them. Consider writing an old-fashioned letter to someone you miss; you’ll make their day, and it might be calming to write out your thoughts.
“Be mindful of others and try to reach out to those who might be struggling a bit more and share some positivity and energy with them,” Dr. Charguia says.
Doing so will bring you cheer as well. Remember, during these unprecedented times, it’s vital that we support each other and offer compassion and support to those who need it.
Also, don’t forget to connect with your partner, children or anyone else who lives in your home. Being in close quarters over the past several months has increased stress on relationships, but it also provides an opportunity for strengthening connections.
4. Give yourself permission to recharge.
Find ways to take special care of yourself. This could mean taking a long bath, binge-watching your favorite show, listening to music you love or eating a piece of chocolate. It’s also a good idea to find ways to move your body. Being active has been shown to have many physical and mental health benefits. Working out can give you more energy and improve your overall mood. Moderate exercise can even give your immune system a boost.
“There is a human tendency to think about the needs of others, but be sure to think about what your own needs are,” Dr. Charguia says. “We all have to do more of that personal inner reflection and remind ourselves to care for ourselves so we can help our families.”
And remember, these are unprecedented times. There is no playbook for how to handle this new normal, so it’s important to be gentle with yourself—and others.
If you feel stuck in painful feelings, reach out to others. Friends, loved ones, a faith leader or a mental health professional can help.