Maintaining Good Mental Health During the Holidays and Winter

Northwestern Medicine
Health and Wellness October 13, 2020
As we move into the last few months of 2020, we are quickly approaching the holiday season and winter. This time of year can already be challenging for many from a mental health perspective, and adding in the COVID-19 pandemic will likely make things more difficult. Here are some tips on ways to maintain good mental health in the months ahead.

Attribute to: Allison Johnsen, LCPC, BCC, manager of behavioral health at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital and Delnor Hospital

What should people start thinking about now in order to mentally prepare for a different experience this holiday season?

Remind yourself as much as you need to that “it’s only going to be like this this year.” We’ve already passed many holidays this year: Easter, Yom Kippur, 4th of July, Labor Day. Know that it’s just one more set of holidays that is going to be different. The crux is that we need to keep everybody safe in gatherings, so maybe that means smaller amount of people, sticking to your family unit or celebrating with extended family virtually.

How can we handle doing (or not doing) things that break with long and dearly held traditions?

If you typically have big family gatherings, think about what you would normally do at those gatherings and see if you can replicate them with your immediate family unit. Perhaps have the same gifting ritual, same food ritual or pass recipes around. Have a mini celebration that mimics the big one. If that feels too weird or there aren’t enough people, then maybe it’s best to abandon the tradition for just this year and do something different altogether. Sometimes it can feel too empty to do the tradition in an altered way, so do something completely different. Taking video and posting the video on a family Facebook group so that everyone can watch, or scheduling a celebration on Zoom is something that extends beyond your family unit but is still safe.

Ask yourself what is the meaning of the holiday to you as an individual. For Thanksgiving, is it the feast, is it the family camaraderie? Identify the most important and meaningful thing for you and focus on replicating that the best you can, and remind yourself that you can return to your rituals as they were in 2021. Find a way to make it special for you this year.

How can people stay active during the holiday season and winter months?

If the gym is no longer an option, then walking always is. We can do this no matter the cold, as long as we wear the appropriate gear. If it is too snowy, slushy or frigid, have some YouTube videos lined up for cardio and weight workouts, Pilates or yoga to stay fit and active. Put exercise and movement into your schedule as must do’s, just like meetings or appointments.

How can we maintain good mental health during the cold and dark of winter, with an emphasis on diet, exercise and a positive frame of mind?

Do what works for you to keep your thoughts as positive as possible: gratitude journaling/exercises, practicing your faith, mindfulness with a focus on noting and refuting negative thinking. Remind yourself that winter is temporary and spring light will come again. Think, “It gets lighter every day after the winter solstice in late December”. Put positive activities that you like into each week: visits (physical distanced and masked) with friends and family, special dinners, reading a real page-turner, watching a TV series that does not depress you, but that you enjoy; taking up a project or hobby and keeping at it. Productivity really helps our mental health. Reach out verbally to someone you trust when you need someone to help you “straighten out” your thinking if it is going negative or irrational.

What are some personal tips you can share for staying healthy during the winter months?

Make sleep a priority, followed by exercise and nutrition. Keep up the handwashing, mask wearing and physical distancing for your protection and others. Don’t let your guard down; protect yourself especially when others are not. Take vitamins and eat healthfully, and watch out for binging on food and alcohol. Keep up the exercise, as well. These are all immune-boosting health practices and we should take them seriously now more than ever.

I’d also recommend getting dressed by a certain time every day and putting on work clothes for work, even if working remotely. Keep up with personal hygiene; it all just makes us feel better about ourselves. Use skin lotion in the winter as our skin dries out in low humidity and heated environments. Beyond taking care of yourself physically – which does tie in to your mental health – monitor your thought patterns and change them to more positive thoughts as much as possible. If you find you cannot do these, then seek a mental health counselor or talk to your primary care physician.
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