Coping with the holidays, COVID-19 and winter blues

As we head indoors and prepare to celebrate the holidays during the pandemic, there are ways to stay mentally and physically fit.

  • Remember the 4Ms of mental health.
  • Find opportunities for mindfulness throughout your day.
  • Reimagine your family traditions and find new ways to connect.

[4 MIN READ]

Whether you’re someone who embraces the winter and the holidays that come along with it, or someone who dreads the cold weather and festive gatherings, there’s no getting around the fact that the next few weeks (and even upcoming winter months) will be challenging for us all. As COVID-19 numbers continue to climb, we’ll need to get creative and find safe, new ways to celebrate the holidays and continue to maintain our social connections now that we can’t gather outside as easily. 

Gone will be the big Thanksgiving potlucks, traveling to see family and friends far and wide and attending annual holiday parties. Instead, we’ll be once again meeting over Zoom to celebrate occasions, brainstorming ways to keep the kids entertained and looking for ways to stay active while temperatures plummet outdoors.

But, it’s not all bad news: there are still many great ways to bond with family and friends and take care of yourself as we push towards 2021.

The best place to start is to plan ahead, shares Hayley Quinn, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at Swedish.

“One thing we often talk about when it comes to the holidays is ‘cope-ahead thinking,’” explains Dr. Quinn. 

“One thing we often talk about when it comes to the holidays is ‘cope-ahead thinking,’” explains Dr. Quinn. “That’s when you establish coping activities or routines that can help you handle challenging times before you become stressed.”

Here are a few ways to get started.

Remember the 4Ms of mental health

The “4 Ms of Mental Health” are a great place to start when it comes to building the routines and coping strategies to get you through challenging times, encourages Dr. Quinn. The 4Ms of mental health are:

  • Mindfulness
  • Mastery
  • Meaningful engagement
  • Movement

Mindfulness

Mindfulness goes far beyond meditation. Mindfulness, in fact, is simply the act of focusing on the present. It can be easy to get caught up in a long list of to-do’s, work calls, Google class meetings for your kids and just the daily routine of life. Pausing and being mindful of what’s happening around you – instead of what could happen, has to happen or will happen next – has clear mental and physical benefits. Research has shown that mindfulness, even for just 15 minutes a day, can help:

  • Build resilience
  • Relieve stress
  • Reduce pain
  • Boost self-esteem
  • Build relationships
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve sleep
  • Improve digestive health
  • Ease anxiety
  • Combat depression

Pausing and being mindful of what’s happening around you – instead of what could happen, has to happen or will happen next – has clear mental and physical benefits. 

Here are a few mindfulness techniques you can try. Once you find an approach that fits you, practice each day. That way, when you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, anxious, upset or depressed, you have a go-to release that you can depend on.

  • Start each day with a purpose. Before getting your day off to a running start or even checking your phone, spend time reflecting on yourself, your goals and the day ahead. Set an intention – what you want to accomplish for the day. It may be as simple as connecting with a family member or eating healthy.
  • Try mediation. Meditation is a great way to take a break from the daily grind and refocus on your thoughts and feelings. There are many great apps you can download right to your phone or you can check out this guide from The New York Times.
  • Take deep breaths. Deep breathing can help deliver more oxygen to your brain, calm down racing thoughts and even out your heart rate. Try counting to four as you breathe in deeply, and count to four again as you slowly breathe out.
  • Center yourself on your senses. When you’re feeling distracted or anxious, try going back to your five senses: Name five things you can see; four things you can feel; three things you can touch; two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. It’s a simple and effective way to break out of a cycle of negative thinking or tough emotions.

Mastery

One thing many of us have found during the extra time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic is a new skill or hobby. That mastery, explains Dr. Quinn, is a great way to cope with stressful times.

“Finding a sense of accomplishment in a hobby or skill can really help boost your mood and mental health,” says Dr. Quinn.

“Finding a sense of accomplishment in a hobby or skill can really help boost your mood and mental health,” she says. “Your hobby should reflect your interests or skills. It can be tending to houseplants, trying a new recipe or something as simple as cleaning out a closet that’s been on your to-do list.”

Movement

Physical activity has a clear mind-body connection. Research has found that as little as 20 minutes of moderate exercise – such as walking – releases feel good chemicals, like dopamine and serotonin. These natural chemicals are your body’s way to help improve your mood.

Meaningful engagement

Your social connections – or relationships with friends, family, neighbors and even coworkers – help drive your mental and physical health. In fact, that’s one of the most challenging aspects of our current pandemic. It has changed how we interact with our loved ones, especially during the holidays.

Masks, physical distance and the outdoors have become hallmarks of many get-togethers. While that may be challenging as we head into colder months, there are still great ways to stay connected.

Fortunately, technology has allowed us to stay connected with friends and family members and many of us have gotten creative with ways to see our loved ones in person. Masks, physical distance and the outdoors have become hallmarks of many get-togethers. While that may be challenging as we head into colder months, there are still great ways to stay connected.

Get creative and put new spins on your favorite holiday traditions. Maybe everyone swaps a recipe for a virtual Thanksgiving and rates each dish. Take that annual ugly holiday sweater party online and give out prizes for the outfits that really shine. Or, host a virtual holiday game night with family that usually celebrates in person.

Reimagine your favorite traditions

One of the most surprising emotions many of us are experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic is grief: We grieve many of our old activities – going to the store without a mask, planning that winter getaway, hosting a family dinner on special holidays. We grieve relationships that have become distant or even confrontational. Instead of focusing on the loss you feel with every aspect of the upcoming celebrations, focus on the traditions and moments that mean the most to you.

We grieve relationships that have become distant or even confrontational. Instead of focusing on the loss you feel, focus on the traditions and moments that mean the most to you.

“What is special about the holidays to you?” asks Dr. Quinn. “Is it a cultural meal or connecting with family? Drill down specifically to what it is about the holidays and find new ways to do that.”

Bundle up and head outside

Temperatures may be dropping, but that’s no reason to stay huddled up on the couch all winter long. The fresh air and sunlight can do wonders for your physical and mental health. So, after that big Thanksgiving meal, bundle up the members of your household for a touch football game in the backyard. Take a walk at night to check out the stars. Make a firepit in the backyard and roast marshmallows.

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Find a doctor

If you want to talk to a professional about your mental health and wellness, our providers are here for you. You can connect with your provider in-person or virtually. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow-up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Find out what we’re doing to keep you safe when you visit.

Related Resources

Seasonal affective disorder

Recognize the subtle signs of depression

Prepare now for your pandemic winter: Your future self will thank you

Coping with depression and mental health issues during COVID holidays

How to help someone in the midst of a mental health crisis

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

Our philosophy for well being is looking at the holistic human experience. As such, the Swedish Wellness & Lifestyle Team is committed to shining a light on health-related topics that help you live your healthiest life. From nutrition to mindfulness to annual screenings, our team offers clinically-backed advice and tips to help you and your loved ones live life to the fullest.

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