Coping with the holidays, COVID-19 and winter blues

November 29, 2021 Providence Mental Health Team

This article was updated November 30, 2021 to reflect recent research and information.

[5 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • The 4Ms of mental health (mindfulness, mastery, meaningful engagement and movement) are helpful for building routines and coping strategies to get you through challenging times – such as a second year of pandemic holidays.

  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of repeated depression that comes and goes as the seasons change. Learn more about how to notice SAD symptoms and what you can do.

  • Stress Awareness Day offers time to reflect on sources of stress and how to prevent and manage them effectively.

As we head back indoors and prepare to celebrate the holidays, there’s no getting around the fact that these next few months will be challenging. Even with the available COVID-19 vaccines, there are still risks associated with holiday gatherings as the pandemic continues. And similar to last year, we’ll need to get creative to find safe ways to celebrate.

Holiday parties may look different. Your gatherings may be smaller. You may not travel as far. Adapting to the new season and what is “normal” can be stressful. And the added uncertainty from the pandemic can weigh on your mental health. But it’s not all bad: there are still many ways to bond with family and friends and take care of yourself as we get closer to 2022.

We learned in 2020 that 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 is simply the act of focusing on the present. 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 10 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

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 starting your day 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 meditation. 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 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.

And don’t let the cold stop you! 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 outside. Take a walk at night to check out the stars. Make a firepit in the backyard and roast marshmallows.

Meaningful engagement

Your social connections – or relationships with friends, family, neighbors and even coworkers – help drive your mental and physical health. In fact, that has been 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 these can become more 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 from last year. 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.

Seasonal Affective Disorder: How to tell when it’s more than a bad day

The holidays often bring a feeling of excitement. But as the days get shorter and colder, you may find yourself less motivated than usual.

“Longing for sunshine and being less active in the winter months is normal. Especially during a pandemic,” says Dr. Quinn. “But when these feelings start affecting your work, hobbies and relationships, you may have what’s known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).”

SAD is a type of repeated depression that comes and goes as the seasons change – mainly the fall and winter months. With less natural light, hormone levels can change in your body that affect your mood. Women are four times as likely as men to suffer from SAD.

If you think you may have SAD, talk to your primary care or mental health provider. There are therapies that can help with your symptoms. They’ll confirm that your symptoms aren’t due to another issue. You can also try some of these creative ideas to lift your spirits at home.

Acknowledge Stress Awareness Day

How do you deal with extra stress? Stress Awareness Day which is celebrated this month is a chance to reflect on sources of stress and how to prevent and manage them effectively. The International Stress Management Association (ISMA) was established this day in 1998. Their goal is to remove the stigma related to mental health. In 2018, they expanded the day to include International Stress Awareness Week during the first week of November.  

With the seasons changing and the uncertainty of the pandemic, it’s helpful to know that you are not alone. There are people and resources to help you with stress and mental wellness.

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Find a doctor

At Providence, we’re here to help you with all your health needs, such as mental health. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can access a full range of healthcare services.

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

About the Author

Whether it's stress, anxiety, dementia, addiction or any number of life events that impede our ability to function, mental health is a topic that impacts nearly everyone. The Providence Mental Health Team is committed to offering every-day tips and clinical advice to help you and your loved ones navigate mental health conditions.

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