Sweeping global pandemic aside, winters can be tough in a variety of ways, from individuals feeling more isolated and experiencing symptoms aligning with seasonal affective disorder due to lack of sunlight, to getting less exercise, not prioritizing self-care, and falling into unhealthy eating habits.
Here are some expert recommended ways to maintain both physical and mental health during this winter season and amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic:
Get out and active:
According to Dr. Joseph F. Wetterhahn, a family medicine specialist with Samaritan Medical Center, usually in the winter months he is having conversations with patients about staying fit over the winter. With the COVID-19 pandemic, he said there is an extra layer of stress on people’s health.
“My wife Regina is a physician’s assistant, and we try to motivate people to find a way to not be stuck in the house,” he said. “If you can do something outdoors almost every day, it will improve your mental health as well as your physical health. If there happens to be some sun outside, we try to get people to spend some time in the sun every day- even if it’s coming through a window.”
Dr. Wetterhahn said at his practice, they also try to get people to think about what kind of a fitness plan they want to take during the colder, darker months. Even just getting out and walking a bit, or engaging in some winter activities like cross country skiing if one is able to regularly during the cold months can improve wellness.
Often overlooked, self-care is a lot more important than many realize, according to therapist Ann M. Butcher with the Child Advocacy Center through the Victims Assistance Center of St. Lawrence County.
Self-care is taking care of every part of the self: the physical, the social, the mental, the emotional and the spiritual. For instance, for physical care, a person would eat well and exercise, or get a good night’s sleep.
“For social it’s just being able to take time and hang out with friends, have a phone call with a friend or a Zoom chat,” Ms. Butcher said. “It makes you still feel connected despite the fact that you can’t see them physically. Self-care is making sure that you deal with yourself as a whole person, not just parts of you.”
Make connections and healthy dishes:
Ms. Butcher said that what she has found is that for the kids she works with, the lack of socialization during the pandemic has affected them pretty harshly. As a message to parents, she said it’s important that they engage their teens and children in conversations about how they’re feeling and spending time with them- really filling in that interaction that they’re not getting from spending time with friends or doing activities that have been limited due to COVID-19.
Ways to foster connections with children in the home could range from playing games to cooking a nice family meal together. Dr. Wetterhahn and his wife teach cooking classes twice a month that Samaritan gives away as a community service focusing on healthy cooking.
“Many people want to be healthier but don’t necessarily know the techniques or the recipes or the ingredients to do that,” Dr. Wetterhahn said. “The winter is a great time to learn how to do some new recipes, and that kind of a thing helps emotion too, it breaks up the monotony of the winter by giving us something to focus our creative energies on.”
Give light therapy a try:
During winter, the days grow shorter and sunlight exposure becomes scarcer, so seasonal affective disorder (SAD) becomes more common. SAD is a type of depression that occurs during the late fall and early winter and while the exact cause is unknown, research points to lack of light as a main contributor.
To combat the effects of SAD, a solution could be light boxes.
According to a piece published on Harvard’s website regarding the topic, light boxes should have 10,000 lux exposure. For comparison, a bright sunny day is 50,000 lux or more. It’s recommended that those using the boxes don’t stare directly at them, much like the sun.
Those using light boxes should keep the box in front of them or just off to the side about a foot away. Activities conducive to light therapy include reading, meditating or even watching TV while exposed to the light box. Experts recommend absorbing the light for about 30 minutes a day, beginning before 10 a.m., but the time doesn’t have to be done all at once, it can be spread through the day.
Seek help if you need it:
“The depths of sadness and isolation are obviously worse during the pandemic, and the chance that your health is going to slip further away from what’s optimal is worse,” Dr. Wetterhahn said. “I think now is the most important time for us to be talking to patients about how to get through the winter and emerge on the other side in a healthier and more emotionally beneficial state.”
If adopting healthy exercise or eating habits, trying light therapy and virtually connecting with friends either don’t work for an individual, or they’re not enough for someone to feel like they’re as well as they should be, it is recommended they seek help.
While the stigma around mental health is not a friendly one, it can be a huge relief to be able to talk to somebody who knows nothing about you, your lifestyle, or your family, Ms. Butcher said.
“Sometimes it’s just nice to be able to talk to a stranger,” she said. “This isn’t just for the kids and the teens, this is for the parents, the coworkers, your team members, your service providers-- it’s for everybody because everybody is struggling right now.”