6 Ways To Relieve Your “Winter Pandemic Scaries”

Photo: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images.
It was roughly mid-August when it first occurred to me how much I was dreading winter in a pandemic. It was a feeling akin to the Sunday scaries. By September, I could feel the apprehension settling in, even though winter was a ways away.
I wasn’t alone in my trepidation. In November, Vice President Elect Kamala Harris tweeted, “We are facing a dark winter if we don’t get coronavirus under control.” Of course, she was right. On the first official day of winter, 1,963 people died in the U.S. Now, in January, the number of deaths per day have roughly doubled.
Although I tried to focus on the positive vaccine rollout news and distract myself by rewatching Home Alone, my stress has only grown — and post-holidays, has turned into something like despair. “The sense of loss for people is more apparent in winter,” says Steven Meyers, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago. “The pivot to winter is going to be more difficult, because even though the stress is going to stay relatively consistent, the outlets for coping that many people have used are going to be increasingly hard to come by.”
He gives this analogy: “Imagine you’re walking around in your daily life carrying a backpack that has 40 or 50 pounds of weight,” he says. At times, you forget you're even wearing it. But it's always there, and if you're handed any additional weight (a violent, racist, and anti-Semitic attack on the nation's Capitol, for instance), and not given any chances to set it down (no more opportunities for safe outdoor meet-ups as the weather gets colder), it can grow to become unbearable.
While our routines do have to change during the winter, there are things you can do to lighten your stress load and make your first pandemic winter more bearable. Start with these expert-backed strategies.

Aim for "mental moderation"

“Some people are imagining this to be the worst time of their lives, creating anticipatory anxiety that may add burden on top of what they’re already experiencing now,” Dr. Meyers says. Others may be leaning too far in the other direction, and in their determination to stay upbeat are actually falling into a "toxic positivity" mindset. “The middle is the best,” Dr. Meyers says. “Have the mindset that there will be challenges, but you can be resourceful and you can get through this."
Setting mindful intentions for yourself can keep you from tipping too low or too high. Intentions can become a kind of goal or mantra, and creating one that embodies "mental moderation" will help you stay on middle ground. “You can pick something simple, such as: my goal for this winter is peace,” suggests Alfiee Breland-Noble, PhD, MHSc, a psychologist and founder of the mental health nonprofit, the AAKOMA Project. Write it down on a sticky note and place it somewhere you'll see it often, make your intention a recurring calendar event so you see reminders for it on your phone, or simply repeat it to yourself before you go to bed at night.

Find chances to move

Moving more has been shown to improve mood and lessen anxiety, but as the weather gets colder, we tend to get outside less. If you can, it may be worth layering up and keeping up with your daily walks or jogs. Or get creative about building some movement into your indoor life. If you like to workout, stream a fun new class. Or dance around to music you like, try to learn a TikTok dance, or just pace around while talking on the phone with friends instead of sitting down.

Treat isolation seriously

If there's anything we learned from the last year, it's that physical isolation is very, very difficult — and not good for us mentally, either. Winter will make it harder to see people in real life, and it's worth going the extra mile to stay connected. “Coming into winter, don’t be too proud to ask for help,” Breland-Noble says. “Text your friend and say, ‘Can I call you?’ If they don’t respond, text someone else. Don’t sit and assume that people don’t care because they’re not reaching out. They’re probably dealing with their own stuff, too.” Phone calls, FaceTime sessions, email gratitude chains, and layering up and going on a socially distanced walk (or snowshoe, if need be) will all be lifesavers over the next few months. If you're FaceTimed out, consider adding some structure to your get togethers — start a virtual book club, look for interesting classes you can join via MasterClass or even LinkedIn Learning, or try game nights.

Give "future you" a gift 

Put something (or better, some things) on your calendar that you can look forward to — the first day of spring, the last day of January, inauguration day, or a fun Zoom PowerPoint party you’ve planned with your friends. “This is a strategy used by people who run marathons,” Dr. Meyers says. “They set short-term goals to get through the long race. “Even though time feels like time moves slowly, it still moves. Winter will come to an end. A vaccine will be circulated. And, even if it’s difficult now, there’s an end date for all of us. Knowing that can be a big source of comfort.” Putting the events on your calendar may feel like a bit much, but the reminders can provide a hit of comfort when you need it.

Celebrate small victories

Even relatively minor achievements have the potential to make you feel really good, the Harvard Business Review reports. Something as small as a successful baking project or finishing a jigsaw puzzle is enough. But to let the happiness sink in, you must take the time to savor these wins research in the Journal of Positive Psychology shows.
Here are a few easy ways to savor small moments of joy: Write in a gratitude journal every day; commit to taking five full minutes to really celebrate a happy moment right after it happens; share your win with friends or family; take a picture of something related to the moment, save it to a specific photo album, and scroll through those shots at night before bed. These actions help make your joyful moments "stickier," giving you more resilience to get through tough times too.

Create support systems

Seek out professional help, Dr. Meyers suggests. Your insurance may cover therapy, but if not, many therapists work on a sliding scale to help patients who can't afford to pay their full fee. You can also check out Open Path Psychotherapy Collective, a nationwide non-profit that can help you find low-cost care. Everyone can benefit from therapy and additional check-ins, especially during such a trying year.

More from Wellness

R29 Original Series