Coping with the holidays, COVID-19 and winter blues

In this article:
  • Remember the Four Ms of Mental Health.
  • Find opportunities for mindfulness throughout your day.
  • Know that it’s ok to reach out for help when you need it.

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. Throughout COVID-19 we’ve had to be creative and find safe, new ways to celebrate the holidays and maintain our social connections. 

While many of us will be traveling to see family and friends this holiday season, many others will be celebrating another Zoom holiday or not celebrating at all. At the same time, lots of caregivers will be brainstorming ways to keep the kids entertained and 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 move through the holiday season and into 2022. It’s vital that we plan ahead and manage expectations, shares Veronika Zantop, M.D., medical director, women's psychiatry at Swedish. 

“Around Christmas, people often feel overwhelmed by their "should-do" list. This holiday is particularly hard because of all the decisions we have to make around COVID-19, such as travelling, seeing extended family and discussions around people's expectations and safety,” says Dr. Zantop. “The holidays are a time of joy, but also a time of becoming acutely aware of mourning and loss, both of loved ones and traditions.”   

Here, she offers some suggestions for self-care and handling the challenging feeling that come up for many of us at holiday time and as we enter the winter months. 

"The Four 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. Zantop. “Since it’s such a stressful season, the Four Ms of Mental Health can help with intentionality."

So, what are the Four Ms?

Mindfulness goes far beyond meditation. Mindfulness, in fact, is simply the act of focusing on the present moment. It can be easy to get caught up in a long list of to-dos, work calls, parenting responsibilities and life’s daily routines. 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 helps build resilience, relieve stress, lower blood pressure, improve sleep and digestive health and combat anxiety and depression.

Mastery of one new thing helps engage the brain in a way that can change our emotional state. Many of us have found new hobbies or interests in our extra time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. That mastery is a great way to cope with stressful times.

Movement and physical activity have 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 and social connections or relationships with friends, family, neighbors and even co-workers. These play a vital role in our mental and physical health. In fact, meaningful engagement has been one of the most challenging aspects of our current pandemic, because of the changes to how we interact with our loved ones, especially during the holidays.

"The holidays are a time of joy, but also a time of becoming acutely aware of mourning and loss, both of loved ones and traditions.”   

 

A fifth “m” is meditation, which is also 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 in through your nose and, again count to four again as you slowly breathe out through your mouth. 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.

For those struggling to regulate their feelings, Dr. Zantop also recommends the pneumonic device STOP as a centering, grounding exercise that can be done in the moment anywhere:

S – stop and pause whatever you’re doing

T – take a breath of one slow inhale and exhale

O – observe what’s going on internally and around you. How do you feel? What does your body need?

P – proceed with the best thing you can do for yourself in that moment.

Get Moving!

Bundle up and head outside because research shows that physical exercise and activity have a significant impact on brain chemistry. “I think in the winter in particular it's especially important to be intentional about exercise, especially given that it's so cold outside and our daylight hours are limited,” says Dr. Zantop. “Physical activity is an important tool in helping us manage our feelings and stay present.”   

Remember that you’re not alone. Ask for help when you need it.

“Seek more support and see an M.D. if these symptoms are sustained and causing problems with sleep, appetite, energy, and ability to enjoy things,” says Dr. Zantop. “If you experience sustained depression or heightened anxiety, including low mood, low energy and motivation, sleep impairment/insomnia, difficultly enjoying things and hopelessness, feeling on-edge, restlessness, not being able to relax or calm down, feeling overwhelmed or excessively irritable, panic attacks, this would be a good time to check in with your doctor for referrals and treatment recommendations.”

Help is available
  • Crisis Text Line. This free confidential text message service is available for people in crisis 24/7. Text hello to 741741 in the United States.
  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or click Lifeline Chat for a free, confidential, 24/7 service that connects individuals in crisis with trained counselors across the United States.
  • Crisis services are available to all Washington residents by contacting the crisis line for your county. King County residents should call 1-866-427-4747.
Find a doctor

To access a Swedish Behavioral Health and Wellbeing provider (a licensed clinical social worker, psychologist, addiction medicine specialist or psychiatrist) outside of the primary care setting, call 1-800-SWEDISH, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.  You may be referred to a Swedish clinician or a community provider in your plan network, depending on your care needs.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult with a doctor or behavioral health specialist virtually, you have options. Swedish Express Care Virtual  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 physician, caregiver or advanced care practitioner, you can use our provider directory.

Find out the latest updates on how we’re handling COVID-19.

 

Additional resources

Stressing about the holidays? Protect your emotional health with these tips

Anxious in Seattle: Report shows Seattle is most stressed major city in the U.S.

Meditation, mindfulness and music for heart health

You are not alone: Finding ways to prevent suicide

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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