Back in March 2020, in the UK, we all experienced our first lockdown due to the Covid pandemic. At the time there was widespread anxiety and difficulties for us all trying to adjust to our sudden new situation, but I am aware that it actually all seems rather long ago now! As we go into winter and the colder, darker and in some ways more difficult months, different areas of the UK are experiencing different levels of restrictions... although we haven't yet had another full national lockdown. However there is certainly an air of nervousness about if/when this will happen and I believe that this uncertainty is impacting on our emotional wellbeing and causing many of us to feel stressed and unable to make decisions about the coming months. The first lockdown, although difficult, felt like a novelty and a short term thing, a feeling which has disappeared when we consider a possible second lockdown.... and after 7-8 months of living through this crisis we still seem to have no end in sight. This coupled with the winter preventing us as easily meeting outside with others (and restrictions in certain areas also preventing this) means that we are feeling even more lonely and isolated than ever.
So what can we do? I don't have all the answers but I am going to outline some simple tips to get you thinking so that you can be proactive in looking after your mental health over the coming months.
10 Tips to Look After Your Mental Health During A Winter Lockdown
If you follow me on Instagram you may have heard me talking on stories about this article I read in the Guardian all about how our mindset can affect our levels of happiness and how if we learn to "think like a Norwegian" we may find it easier to cope with (and possibly enjoy!) the colder, darker months. Kari Leibowitz describes in the article how, although Norway has some periods of winter with exceptionally little light, they do not suffer with seasonal depression or low mood to the extent we may expect. Instead they focus on the positive things that they enjoy doing throughout the winter, like skiing & hiking and spending cosy times with friends. This mindset shift allows people to have a different experience and is certainly something we can use going forwards into a winter lockdown. This is not to diminish the difficulties or emotions that arise because of the situation, but with a growth mindset we are able to see things as challenges or opportunities for development, and this allows them to become a neutral or positive experience. If we change the story and narrative we tell ourselves then we can have a powerful impact on the outcome and our own daily experience. I wonder what things you could reframe and how you could change your mindset if we were to go into another lockdown?
2. Expect to feel differently on different days
Although mindset change can be powerful it won't magically fix every problem in your life and it's very important that you allow yourself to feel your emotions. There are likely going to be challenges for you because of the pandemic and this may result in you experiencing emotions such as anger, resentment, sadness, grief, frustration and many more. When we suppress emotions they intensify and cause us more harm by leaking out of us in uncontrolled ways, so it is important we acknowledge how we are feeling, to ourselves and to others in our lives. In addition to this our mental health & emotional wellbeing is not fixed and it is normal to feel different on different days. After such a tumultuous year as 2020 your mood swings may be greater than normal, sometimes going from fine to awful overnight.. knowing this may happen and being prepared for it can reduce the impact it has on your life. Keep a record of how you are feeling if this is useful for you and if you find yourself feeling markedly different for 2 weeks or more then think about accessing professional help, before things get worse.
3. Compassion for self and for others
When you are having a hard time the first step is acknowledging your emotions, but the second is to be kind and non-judgemental... even to yourself inside your own head! We often fall in to the trap of shaming or judging ourselves for having feelings, saying we shouldn't feel this way because so and so has got it worse but this inner critic makes us feel worse and doesn't help anyone else either. It's never a competition about who has things worse or who is suffering more so be kind to yourself when you are experiencing emotions, and catch yourself before the comparison sets in. In fact even when you catch yourself in comparison mode be compassionate towards yourself then too! Practise saying nice things "I am comparing my pain to others because I find it difficult to value my own feelings and experiences" is much kinder than "You shouldn't be comparing yourself, why do you always do this?!" Also, be kind and compassionate to others.. if they share things with you try to just listen and not fix or offer advice. Allow others to have a different experience to you, all our experiences and emotions are different but they are all valid.
4. Have realistic expectations
We've already been through one lockdown so we can reflect on what we learnt last time and use this to inform our approach to a second lockdown. What didn't work for you last time? Did you tell yourself you were going to learn a new language, workout every day, launch a new business? Did it not quite work out as you planned and you found yourself feeling like a failure because you didn't meet the ridiculously high expectations you set of yourself during a pandemic?! I suppose this comes back to being compassionate towards yourself.. it's okay if you aren't productive or if your motivation ebbs & flows, you're a human, not a robot. What things did you do last time that really helped with how you were feeling day to day? Maybe it was more reading, more cooking, more resting? Reflect on these and think about what from that experience will work to support you throughout the winter, let's think small not big this time around.
5. Take breaks and mark transitions
Many people will have found themselves in 2020 working from home when they never have before and to be honest felt thrown into the deep end with little preparation. Taking breaks is vitally important for your mental health no matter what work you do but it's much easier to remember to take a break when your employer is in charge of it and you are in the workplace with your colleagues. If you are working from home make sure to still schedule in breaks, space them out and actually stand up and leave your desk or work area. Take a proper lunch break and eat your food, again away from your desk, if you are able to move around a little this will also help. One thing many people struggled with during the last lockdown was the work day blending in to the rest of their life, with no clear distinction between where work finishes and life begins. If that was something you struggled with think about how you can be more mindful this time and how you can mark the transition from work time to your own leisure time... some ideas are to light a candle, change your clothes, make a herbal tea or a fancy mocktail, do some yoga, have a bath. Try to make sure you work in one area of your house that is designated as your work area and have clear boundaries about when you are working and when you are not (try not to answer work emails at midnight!) if you need help setting boundaries check out my previous blog post.
6. Keep active
Exercise is good for your mental health and emotional wellbeing and it's still super important to keep moving even if we are restricted with what activities we can do outside of the house. However I think it's really important to not set ourselves unachievable goals and be aware of placing too much pressure on ourselves to become the fittest we've ever been whilst in lockdown! You might actually find that your usual exercise routine doesn't feel good anymore or that you lack motivation to do anything strenuous, that's OK, remember to practise compassion and listen to what your body needs. I find what works for me is to focus on being active and incorporating movement into my day rather than a particular form of exercise. That might be just walking or a gentle yoga practise... and I have been particularly enjoying just dancing to my favourite music or learning a dance routine from Youtube. If it's fun I am far more likely to do it and it doesn't matter what it is as long as I am moving in some way!
7. Get outside (even in bad weather!)
I find this is key to my mental health and is something that I have been particularly paying attention to recently. As someone who suffers in the cold I can quite easily end up spending days inside during the winter but it quickly effects my mood and makes me irritable and grouchy! I have been making a real effort to get outside for a walk at least once a day, whatever the weather, and it really transforms how I am feeling and makes me feel so much calmer when I have found myself tense and wound up. Wrap up warm if the weather is chilly and give yourself permission to come home and warm up as soon as you need to, I find promising myself a bath or a hot chocolate when I get back does the trick but once I'm out I nearly always start enjoying the fresh air and it makes me feel SO much better.
8. Watch out for anxiety provoking news consumption
Yes we need to be aware of what is happening and any relevant changes in order to keep us and others safe, however if you find yourself obsessively checking the news & updates and feeling anxious all the time it's time to put in some boundaries around your news consumption. Don't watch the 24 hour news or any news if you find yourself often feeling in flight or fight mode... just choose a time and once a day check the news updates online, or alternatively ask a loved one to let you know if there are any significant changes.
9. Focus on the present & what you can control
Focusing on the present can reduce feelings of anxiety because often anxiety happens when we are stressing about things in the future that haven't happened yet. None of us know how this is going to play out so it is easy to get swept up in runaway thoughts thinking about all the possibilities but this will only make you feel worse and more uncertain. Instead focus on the present day or even the present moment and don't let your mind wander too far into the future. Anxiety can also occur when we dwell on things we cannot control or influence and so another way of reducing these feelings is to think about circles of control.. and only focus on what is in your circle. For instance you can control your morning routine, what you eat today and how you exercise... you cannot control what the new government rules are or what your neighbour down the street thinks about wearing a mask!
10. Speak to someone and stay in contact with others
It's easy for us to become disconnected when we are so physically isolated and many of us have a lot of different things to be stressed about, but connection with others is vital for our health. I think many of us have Zoom fatigue from last lockdown (how many Zoom quizzes did you do?!) and some people may not feel comfortable video chatting at all, however try and stay in touch with friends and family, drop them a text or a phone call here and there to see how they are doing and be honest with them about your own struggles. Having real honest human connection will help you to manage your own emotions but if you are really struggling and you find your mental health taking a downturn be sure to access professional help to support you emotionally. The BACP directory of therapists or contacting your GP is a good place to start.
I am an Integrative Therapist who works remotely online with millennials who are anxious, lost, and overwhelmed. I work collaboratively with people to support them in their emotional wellbeing, to develop skills in self-care and to foster a deeper understanding of themselves. If you would like to find out how I can help you to understand your emotions better, please book a free consultation to see if we are well suited to work together.
Alternatively, please come connect with me over on Instagram - I would love to get to know you further.