Surviving a Pandemic Winter

Surviving a pandemic winter

Surviving a pandemic winter may be hard on a lot of people. You are not alone. While this summer was marked by a global pandemic and many of our activities were limited (travel, social life, etc), we were still able to spend some time outside with friends and family safely, and even for long walks, appreciating the weather and nature.  With the added challenges of Canada’s bitterly cold and snowy winters, looking ahead to the pandemic winter might seem bleak in comparison with nothing to look forward too. It is safe to say that there will probably be difficult months ahead. Most socializing will be done online and cancelled travel plans might make you feel disappointed and lonely. Some people already find winter’s a difficult time, and with the added fear and anxiety of living in a pandemic, seasonal depression or other depressive symptoms might be more common this year.

Below, you will find tips for a meaningful winter that will help you stay active, connected, engaged, and stimulated, give you a sense of meaning and purpose and ensure that you have lots of meaningful moments of joy this winter.

Prepare to hunker down and get hygge

While getting through the pandemic winter is not going to be easy, there are some things that can help you maintain a positive and prepared mindset, starting with adjusting our expectations and focusing on simple pleasures. Hygge is a Danish term that refers to a quality of coziness, comfort and contentment and they are known for living well and cozy winters! Start thinking about how you can cozy up to a pandemic winter. Some basic essential may include books, candles, warm drinks, cozy slippers, oversized sweaters, soft blankets and a roaring fire!  This winter may not be the time for grand ambition, but it is perfect time to focus on the smaller things in your life that make you happy. Maybe you can start getting excited about winter gear and make sure that you have what you need in order to be comfortable outdoors during the coldest months of the year. Outdoor activities are safer and will help to make sure that you have access to natural light, which is important in managing seasonal affective disorder. It’s a good time to look for sales on snowshoes!

Behavioural Activation

Losing interest in activities, withdrawal from family and friends, and sadness can be part of the daily struggle of living during a pandemic winter.  We can get stuck in a cycle of inactivity and low mood, which leads to less activity and worsening mood. We know that isolating and avoiding activities make us feel worse, but it’s really difficult to break the cycle. One thing that helps is to increase engagement in activities that will improve our mood (starting with activities that are easy and highly rewarding – which also have the potential to be deeply healing and uplifting) and keeping track of how we feel before and after these activities. This process is very empowering and is known as behavioural activation and the ultimate goal is to get to a place where we are engaging in meaningful activities because they feel good, not out of obligation. 

There are many behavioural activation tools that exist. The most popular is a simple weekly calendar with a twist. Using a calendar, you can either schedule your upcoming week (by adding easy and rewarding activities and responsibilities – at least one of each a day), or you can use it to keep track of you how spent your time and how you feel. To have a successful day with a positive outcome, follow the steps written below:

Step one: Make a list of activities that are easy and highly rewarding for you (reading, walking, calling a friend..)

Step two: Using a weekly calendar, try to add at least one activity and one responsibility each day.

Step three: Reflect & rate how you felt before and after specific activities in terms of mastery/accomplishment and pleasure/enjoyment.

Step four: Start adding more challenge: Try to add activities that get you moving, learning, creating, connecting and recharging (the pillars of a healthy brain) every day.

Pillars of a Healthy Brain

Engaging in brain healthy activities that give you a sense of mastery and pleasure helps us to develop cognitive reserve or resilience, which is our mind’s ability to adapt and cope with physical or cognitive threats and challenges. People with a high cognitive reserve have more malleable brains, are more capable of learning new things throughout their lives, and have more ability to navigate adversity more successfully. They also tend to ward off diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease. There are things you can do at any age to maintain your brain’s fountain of youth!

Physical Activity (MOVE)

Research shows a strong link between physical activity and brain health. It also helps you to feel better, increase your energy, sleep better, improve your strength and balance, and prevent falls. The latest data from Participaction suggest doing 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week (in bouts of 10 minutes or more) and to do strength exercises two days a week. That said, any movement is better than none. Consider starting an extremely low-pressure home physical activity routine using ways that you enjoy moving your body. Every minute and every step counts. Listen to your body and do what feels good. Even better if you can make it social – go for regular walks with a friend or neighbour, connect with friends on zoom to exercise, or create a challenge and check in with each other for accountability. Moving your body can include traditional exercise like aerobics, dance, and weights (there are many free and fun videos online!) or things as simple as parking farther away than necessary and walking, or carrying your groceries.

Cognitive Stimulation (LEARN)

Just as your body needs physical activity, your brain needs cognitive activity. Stimulate your mind with cognitively challenging activities. This could include reading, taking an online course and learning something new (a new topic, an instrument, a language, etc), taking a different route when driving, doing things with your non-dominant hand, memorizing phone numbers, and doing crosswords, sudoko, trivia or any other brain game.

Creative Expression (CREATE)

As adults, we often limit our creativity, despite it being one of the most fulfilling ways there is to express ourselves. When we allow ourselves to be creative, we allow our feelings and experiences to flow from us into something else. We can use what we create to reflect on who we are as individuals and what is important to us. Creativity can be explored through a variety of artistic disciplines including music, art, dance, drama, writing and journaling, and cooking. All of these activities engage us in a holistic process of physical, mental, spiritual and social well-being, and can be done informally. You don’t need to take a class or be skilled. Turn on some music and sing along or dance, write in your journal for 10 minutes, doodle, cook your favourite recipe. Remember, as with all of these brain healthy activities, it’s not about the result, but about the process and the positive feelings and a sense of accomplishment.

Social Connection (CONNECT)

Apparently loneliness and social isolation can be as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Social activity and social connection and social support linked to health and happiness. While you may not be able to interact with our friends and family in the regular ways this winter, consider more regular calls on the phone and on Zoom. Social media is often given a bad rap, but if used meaningfully can be a great way to stay connected with people.  It is important to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of contributing to one’s community. Check in with your neighbour. As for help when you need it and offer your help. Find an organization that is looking for virtual volunteers and support someone who is in a difficult situation. Connection doesn’t always have to be with other people. You can also choose to spend time with your pet, in nature, and simply (maybe most importantly), connect with yourself and know yourself as a loving, connected, vibrant, impactful, empowered energetic being.

Stress Management (RECHARGE)

Chronic stress puts your health at risk. It wreaks havoc on your mind and body as is the biggest risk factor for most chronic disease. Stress management is a practice that everyone should take seriously and grow because it can help you to be happier, healthier and more productive. It gives you the resilience to meet challenges head on. That said, it is not one-size –fits-all process. What works for everyone is different. Common activities include mindfulness and meditation, eating nourishing food, and breathing experiences. It can also include setting intentions, creating a gratitude list, slowing down, practicing forgiveness and setting boundaries. There are many free apps, journaling prompts, and ideas online.

Positive coping strategies

All of this might feel very overwhelming but I want you to remember this: So far you have survived 100% of your worst days using your own positive coping strategies! Reflect on what worked for you during the first COVID-19 lockdown, or during any difficult situations you have encountered in your life. How did you handle it?  In what ways did you move, learn, create, connect and recharge. What can you add that will be easy and rewarding to create more feelings of pleasure/enjoyment and mastery/achievement. Remember, this is a time to lower expectations, and focus on simple pleasures. 

 “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” –Albert Camus

Erica Botner
Written by
Erica Botner