There’s no question that the pandemic has spiked everyone’s stress level. Millions of people have lost jobs. Parents are struggling to balance work lives with kids’ remote learning. Many have been stuck inside their homes for months, away from loved ones. And on top of all of that, coronavirus cases and deaths continue to increase every day.
According to local mental health experts, this upcoming winter will bring a whole new layer of stress.
While many have been able to safely do activities outdoors during the summer and fall, “in the cold months people tend to stay inside more,” says Varinia Garcia Anderson, a licensed professional counselor at The Women’s Initiative. “People can’t get out…and that’s a lot of pressure on the system of your well-being.”
Being stuck inside can have a significant impact on mood and behavior, even in normal winters, explains Anderson. It can decrease motivation and energy, making it challenging to get anything done, as well as increase feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Winter also means fewer hours of daylight, which has real consequences for mental health. Sunlight triggers the release of mood-boosting serotonin in the brain, meaning short, dark days are hard for everyone, says licensed clinical social worker Eboni Bugg, who practices in the Charlottesville area.
To get through this stressful season, Bugg encourages everyone to safely spend time outside as much as possible during the day, which helps the body to produce vitamin D, boosting our mood and immune system.
For people of color, getting sun may not be enough to maintain healthy vitamin D levels, explains Bugg.
“For Black and brown people, I encourage folks to check with their physician and check their vitamin D level,” she says. “Because our melanin protects us from the sun, it also limits our capacity to manufacture vitamin D in our skin.”
When it’s not possible to go outside, it’s important to find ways to exercise every day, which naturally helps fight depression.
Regularly indulging in activities “that make you feel good” can also help to relieve winter stress, such as listening to music, reading, cooking, and watching movies, says Anderson.
Though it can be difficult during this time, try to “maintain hope [by] cultivating a practice of gratitude,” adds licensed clinical social worker Joanna Jennings. “Really think about the small things in life that bring you joy or peace, sometimes even writing them out.”
Getting a pet can help too. “Finding something else to care about sometimes can really refocus your energy,” says Bugg.
Most importantly, people should prioritize staying connected with family and friends, and being there for each other through this difficult winter, say all three therapists.
“COVID has really increased disconnection amongst us, but there are still ways we can facilitate connections that are safe,” says Jennings.
Keeping in touch is also the best way to support a family member or friend who is under a lot of stress. That might mean a regularly scheduled phone or video chat, or a socially distanced activity together, preferably outdoors.
“For people who have a loved one who may be suffering, sometimes the concern is that you have to be an expert [and] help them fix it,” says Bugg. “The reality is that most people really just need someone to see them, listen without judgment, and love them unconditionally.”
Of course, these simple practices might not be enough to relieve stress or other mental health struggles.
According to mental health experts, you may be in need of professional help if you experience drastic changes in appetite, sleeping patterns, and energy levels for more than two weeks. Overwhelming anxiety and sadness, feelings of withdrawal, and acts of self-harm are also major causes for concern.
“If a person is really noticing a change…it’s never too early to reach out to a professional,” Jennings stresses. “Oftentimes we are able to catch something early and put supports in place to prevent it from escalating to a serious mental health condition, or to the point of a crisis.”
Free and affordable mental health care is available through multiple community providers, including Region Ten, The Women’s Initiative, Charlottesville Free Clinic, On Our Own, Central Virginia Clinicians of Color Network, and Partner for Mental Health.
The Community Mental Health and Wellness Coalition—a network of health organizations in Charlottesville and the surrounding counties—will also be offering no-cost support groups and events online during the holiday season.
“There are people who are really here to support those who need help, [regardless] of money,” says Anderson. “You are not alone.”