10 Ways to Fight Loneliness This Winter, According to Mental Health Experts
Winter can be a difficult time. Add a global pandemic and stay-at-home orders into the mix, and things only become more challenging. Many of the usual methods we use to combat SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and fight off feelings of loneliness—meetings up with friends, traveling, hanging out in crowded places like cafes or the mall—are no longer viable options. Rather than tackle these issues alone, we reached out to mental health experts to learn what advice they have for making the next few months even just a little bit easier. Here, ten things you can do right now to better set yourself up for success until spring arrives.
1. Start Prepping Now
It’s never too early to start making plans. In fact, all the experts we spoke to stressed the importance of planning ahead and coming up with some coping mechanisms now, rather than waiting to figure it out on the fly. Rachel Gersten, licensed mental health counselor and cofounder of Viva Wellness, suggests taking some time to reflect on what self-care methods tend to work best for you. “This can be anything—including stocking up on books or movies, planning a new project or hobby or making virtual holiday plans—but it's much easier to set up these coping mechanisms before you're struggling,” she says. You can even make a physical (or digital) list of comforting things to do and post it on the fridge or on your bedroom wall so you don’t have to expend any extra energy trying to come up with or remember what you brainstormed back in fall.
2. Start (or Continue) a New Routine
Another option is to start implementing a daily or weekly routine. Sarah Powers, a licensed clinical social worker with the women’s health platform Tia, suggests this method but also stresses that your schedule doesn’t need to be all encompassing, color-coded or plugged into your Google calendar. The important thing is to go about your day with intention and a plan. “This can be as simple as stretching your body when you wake up, showering and then having your morning coffee; going for a walk at lunch; setting time aside in the evening to read, paint, journal or some other form of self-care,” she says. “Just be sure to keep doing all of it with intention, and not randomly. Over time, the familiarity and predictability of the routine will bring a sense of calm and help you feel a little more in control.”
3. Manage Your Expectations
We’ve heard it time and time again, but truly very little of the year 2020 has been ‘normal’ so it’s important to remember this winter will likely feel different from years past, too. “This isn't going to be a normal winter” says Gersten. “While it's more than OK to grieve what we've lost, shifting expectations can make it easier to manage so you're better prepared for the reality of this year.” “Sometimes what we really need is to just accept that winters tend to be difficult” adds Rachel Klechevsky, licensed master social worker with Tia. “While we are working on acceptance, we can figure out how best to navigate it.”
4. Think About What Self-Care Means to You
Do you love escaping into a good mystery novel? Does a long, hot bath seem to just melt your troubles away? Or perhaps you prefer blasting hardcore rock while doing a tough HIIT workout. Whatever it is that helps you reset, refocus or refresh your mind, do what you can now to make those things easier when the time comes—make a reading list or put yourself on your local library’s waiting list for popular books, stock up on bath salts and calming candles or set up a little mini gym in the corner of some room. Future you will be mighty glad you did.
5. Get Outside
Yes, even if it’s cold or snowy or dark. All our mental health experts mentioned the importance of getting outdoors, preferably while the sun is still out. “As much as you can, carve out time in your day to spend some time outside,” says Gersten. “Maybe it's on your lunch break, or in the morning versus at night, but do what you can when you can.” Drink your morning coffee on the front porch or decide to walk to the corner store instead of driving or taking the bus. Or, you can try replacing your old commute with a short walk. “Instead of your usual 30-minute drive or public transit ride back and forth, take a ten-minute walk before you start your day and after you end it,” Gersten suggests.
6. Learn to Differentiate Between Worries and Concerns
“It’s important to distinguish whether what you’re thinking about winter quarantining is a worry or a concern,” says Powers. “Worries are things that might happen in the future. They take up space in your mind with the endless possibilities of what could happen and make you feel out of control.” Concerns, on the other hand, “are more focused and involve problem solving.” Recognizing what you can and cannot control can be super helpful here. You cannot control the fact that it’s going to be gloomy, gray and raining for the next four days but you can control what types of movies, TV shows, media and even food you take in. Picking things that are comforting and promote a healthy mental state will make it easier to deal with those elements you have no choice over.
7. And the Difference Between Loneliness and Simply Being Alone
Just because someone is physically alone doesn’t necessarily mean they are lonely. (On the flip side, just because someone is lonely doesn’t necessarily mean they’re alone.) According to Klechevksy, “Aloneness can feel introspective, comforting and even enjoyable. Loneliness can feel deeply sad and can bring up feelings of self-consciousness or low self-esteem.” If you enjoy being alone, that’s great. Don’t feel bad about the fact that you like having solo time. If you find yourself dealing with self-doubt or self-disparaging thoughts, that is the time to implement your self-care winter plans.
8. Make Your Needs Known
Whether you’re itching for some human interaction or are hoping to carve out some time to be alone it’s important to share those feelings. “Honestly and openness is always key,” says Gersten. This applies both to people you live with and loved ones you aren’t able to physically get together with right now. “Ask for what you want the first time you feel the need, rather than letting it fester and cause more irritability,” she advises. “Begin by stating that this is an open and ongoing conversation and that it is meant to keep everyone feeling comfortable and safe in their home,” adds Klechevsky.
9. Have Some Empathy for Yourself
While it’s great to have goals or something you’re working toward, remember you’re only human. Some weeks you may find it easy and enjoyable to cook a healthy dinner every night, but just because you ordered Domino’s one night instead of whipping together an immunity-boosting soup is no reason to beat yourself up. “Celebrate the small victories,” says Powers, “like getting outside for five minutes or changing out of your sweatpants into jeans. It’s all about altering our expectations and perceptions of what constitutes a “productive” day.”
10. Treat Yourself to Some Cozy, Comforting Upgrades
Turn your home into a place you want to spend time in rather than a place you want to escape. Klechevsky suggests putting new photos or artwork on the walls, swapping your decor or moving furniture around using feng shui. Consider buying yourself some luxe new bedding, fancy pajamas or a cozy new sweatsuit. According to Powers, scented candles are “a great way to signal to your mind and your body to be calm. It sets the tone for the environment for which you surround yourself and has the ability to put us in a better mood.” Splurge on those fancy candles your go-to yoga studio used to burn or pick one that smells like a tropical vacation as an escape from the snowy tundra out your window. It’s all about figuring out what works for you.
Here, some of our favorite self-care items to consider:
1. Otherland Mountain Lace Scented Candle
This clean-burning candle has notes of elderflower fizz, Anjou pear and apple blossom for a light and celebratory scent to lift your spirits.
3. Dusen Dusen Stripe Silk Eye Mask
Sit back, relax and cover your eyes with this luxe face mask while you listen to a book on tape or practice your daily meditation.
4. Sugarfina Sugar Lips
These gourmet candies feel much more special than a pack of Sour Patch Watermelons from the grocery store and make for an excellent post-dinner (or all-day) treat.
5. The Little Book of Self-Care by Joanna Gray
Not quite sure where to begin? This adorable little book has 200 suggestions for how to relax, refresh and restore some peace of mind.